Prufrocker: The Blog

What would I do if I was competing in the barista competition this year? Part 3

Part 3: Choosing a coffee, choosing a grinder.

by  |   |  Competitions, Tips & Tricks

Kapo Chiu at the Hong Kong Barista Championship using the Mahlkonig EK-43 grinder.

Many sports have a very expensive entry level to set yourself up. This can alienate prospective talent from entering. In the UKBC we don’t encounter this issue where the espresso machine is concerned; it is standardised and even the set point temp is fixed. Grinders are rather more of an arms race but the sponsored Mahlkoenig K30 is quite a weapon and good enough to be seated on the Prufrock front bar every day at the moment so anyone can access this technology. There were quite a few expensive 90%+ coffees in the UKBC this year which might seem a bit unattainable to some competitors. The fact is there was a much greater number of robusta blends and commodity grade supermarket coffees than 90+. A robusta blend is going to be that much more unlikely to receive decent taste balance scores due to excessive natural bitterness. There is nothing in the rules that says the UKBC is a specialty coffee competition but if I was competing I’d be looking for a specialty coffee as delicious as I can find and ensure that it was possible to serve a balanced espresso from it and I would invest in myself.

Some very brightly acidic light roast Kenyan coffees may be impossible to balance with conventional grinders with what James Hoffman describes as an hard limit of extraction at around 20%. We can back up this assertion looking back at the Prufrock espresso journal with both our Mythos and K30 grinders. Making the kinds of shots that conform to the WBC espresso definition, we are very seldom yielding above 20% and average around 18.5% on both grinders. The Hoff says:

“…higher extractions simply aren’t possible with some grinders. You can keep grinding finer, and seeing an increase in extraction, but then as you get finer still you actually start to see a decrease again. There is a hard limit for many espresso grinders.”

If you run water through the coffee bed for 2 min and produce a 400ml espresso you will of course extract much higher than 20% but Hoff is talking about the kinds of espressos you are required to make in competition between 25 and 35ml. Grinder choice should perhaps be paired with coffee choice. The sponsored grinder at the UKBC is one such 20% hard limit kind of grinder; the Mahlkoenig K30 and the sponsored filter basket is a 20gVST. Vince Fedele, the basket’s inventor suggests they were designed to be dosed loosely full, then tamped. If you use a high density, light roasted specialty coffee then you may well be up to 21 or 22g in a 20g basket and so imbalance towards acidity starts to sound dangerously probable.

How would I get around this? Look at the sensory score sheet. To get good balance scores I need to balance bitterness and acidity with sweetness. So I need a very sweet variety i.e.: bourbon, typica, gesha. Time to check out the Stumptown varieties guide. Beyond this I need the most important thing of all to quote Aida Batlle; “Perfectly ripe coffee cherry” and I need to work with my roaster to get the coffee sufficiently developed to make it sweet rather than vegetal, with wonder flavours of flowers, fruits, herbs, nuts, caramel and chocolate and not too much spicy, resinous or carbony.

How do I work with my roaster? Take lovely Ralf at the Barn. For two seasons now we have had their wonderful Bamboo (for shade protection) Natural Gesha from Los Lajones by Graciano Cruz. It is superbly defect free. No chips, no quakers, amazingly uniform bean size and perfect in every way. Now Ralf being consummately service orientated with his roasting programme asks “how was the recent consignment” and I say, “I don’t think it was as sweet as last year and was a touch roasty” and he just says, “well let’s lengthen the development phase to increase sweetness and shorten the roast time a little bit to make it lighter and voilà! Next batch was miles sweeter. The consignment after that had clearly labelled, batch three and batch four and he mentioned these were slightly different profiles and which did we like better? We preferred batch three and it’s been divine ever since.

Looking back in my calendar, the first Exeter heat was held on the 6th and 7th of February. Now I take a look on the awesome Left Coast Roast harvest map and see Colombia harvests from around October so this might permit the use of a very fresh Colombian coffee from Huila with high natural sweetness and really easy to detect dark fruit flavours like blackberry and mulberry and plums instead of a Kenyan that by February or March will be a good 13-14 months since harvest which might bring more woody flavours and still very high acidity. Square Mile have just finished running their Kenyans for retail so this is certainly an issue for February. Timing wise I might be lucky with the Colombian (save that for the semis first week of April;) so I’d also keep my eye out for a lovely Bolivian and a Brazillian as they just finished their harvest and these should be turning up any minute now and should still be around and fantastic come February-March. Just sent an email to Eddie at Roundhill who mentioned he’ll have some new season Rwandans and Burundis coming in in three weeks or so. I asked if he wouldn’t mind sending us some samples of any coffees he thinks would work well in competition. I’ve got Koppi on my radar too. @koppi_anne tweeted out from Bogota this morning. If she’s there in person she is very well placed to choose something extraordinary and negotiate to purchase certain lots that she will have exclusivity on.

When James Bailey won the UK Brewer’s cup in 2012 he had his feelers out as far afield as George Howell across the pond. He had collected about eight fantastic coffees, cupped them literally the night before and took with him the coffee that he scored the highest 12hours before he was due to go on stage. This has become a standard training practice at Prufrock since James’ simple moment of brilliance. If you do this, you need to know all of them intimately before you make the big decision, so you won’t forget your flavour notes on stage.

As the rules stand, if you tell the judges your espresso will be imbalanced towards acidity, you will still be scored down in the taste balance section. Unless perhaps you use an EK43. This gets us on to the next issue. Mr Harmon isn’t having imbalance problems with East African heirloom varieties at 3FE, he says:

“…we now serve Kenyan and washed Ethiopian coffee as espresso quite regularly where as before it was something I rarely did. The acidity in the more floral/tea-like/delicate coffees we have access to often manifested itself as soapiness and sourness once it hit an espresso machine. To me the EK brings a sweetness and clarity to these coffees but mellows out the sourness as the TDS drops.”

I can tell you some very fine baristas around the country who have had considerable competition success in the past are in possession of EK43s. Chatting with world technical judge Ken Cooper who was on the scene for Matt Perger’s veritable master-class in Melbourne where he came second in the world, Ken is very enthused about the advances in barista technique with dosing and wastage. Pre-weighed doses from grinders with less than 0.1g grind retention funnelled into the basket are the stuff of great technical scores. Technical judges love giving high scores and the personality type drawn to this endeavour tend not to forget notable performances. Gwilym came up in discussion during last years Newcastle judge’s calibration event. Using an Anfim manual dosing grinder, he received wastage scores of 6 out of 6 from the regionals all the way to the world finals. He loses a point for hygiene for not having a lid on his dosing chamber? Here’s a lobby point for Gareth (Gazza) who also lost a point for this last year. To continue on with football analogies from part 2, this for baristas is something of the “don’t worry about getting a yellow card if you rip off your jersey after scoring in the 86th minute” kind of technical issue. Just make sure you don’t miss out on making the semis by 1 point.

Any Prufrock barista entering the fray will certainly be bringing two weighing scales with them; one for the portafilter, one for the drip tray. Exact doses really have been demonstrated to be essential to consistent shot times. I would still seriously consider using an Anfim dosing chamber in the event that I had to trim a dose back. If it goes in the dosing chamber and is incorporated into the next flight of drinks, it isn’t wasted. In fact, I’d like an EK grinder to grind directly into my Anfim dosing chamber. Food for thought here.

It’s looking like early Feb for the heats, TBC.

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