Time to Update Your Profile

Lately, when I think about some of the fancy-pants new machines hitting the market, I feel completely at a loss.  For the first time in a really long time, it seems like- as far as the coffee industry is concerned- technology might be moving faster than we are able to process it.  I don’t mean to say that we fully understand all technologies that have been presented to us over the past couple decades, but if I were to speak honestly, there have been quite a few times where I have gone off on some crazy tangent about how it would be so cool if ______ would happen, or if someone would develop ______.  I mean, just look at the few posts I have in this blog… portafilters and portafilter baskets made of glass?  Grinders with user adjustable graphs that manipulate macro and micro particle sizes?  Really?  But at the same time, I often look at the (lack of) technology advances in grinders and think how painfully far we could still go if we would just apply ourselves, apply our finances and (we as baristas) apply our voices for change.

The Fuji PXR3 controller

The last decade gave us temperature stability and temperature “profiling” as we thought it was.  The introduction of the Fuji PXR3 into temperature PID (proportional, integral, derivative) controlers was, in my opinion one of the more important advances of the past decade.  All of the things that have come since might not have come at all if we hadn’t had the temperature stability provided by these devices.  A giant thank you to Greg Scace and Andy Schecter is in order, I think, as they were both really the “founding faters” on this one.

Because this could be flying over the heads of quite a few individuals that frequent this blog, I’ll back up a little bit.  A PID controler, very simply, works much like a very sensative thermostat.  It is a computer that uses calculus algorithims to respond to temperature  flucuations and variations.  They are being used all over the place now… espresso machines, coffee brewers, hot water towers, even roasters.  I know I have a burning itch to PID my toaster :0)

The temperature stability world  is now something I feel we have dialed in nicely.  Having worked on painfully UNstable machines for a few years I can promise you that the new temperature stability of, give or take, 0.3-0.5 degrees (sometimes even less) is certainly a giant sigh of relief.  It’s an awesome feeling to leave behind thoughts such as “Did I run enough water through before the shot to bring the group up to temperature?  Did I run too much water through?  How much water is the correct amount of water anyway?

Slayer debut at SCAA/WBC 2009

Just as some would say we started to get temperature control under our belts the introduction of pressure profiling gets thrown into the mix.  For the most general of general statements regarding pressure profiling… typically you are pulling a shot of espresso at 9 bars of pressure.  With the introduction of pressure profiling it gives you the opportunity to start at a lower pressure and then slowly build the pressure over the course of the shot and then slowly lower it again.  Or you can give it full pressure from the start and lower later.  Or you could do a slow build to full pressure then cut off all pressure.  The possibilities are somewhat endless on this front.  I can tell you from personal experience that when I stood in front of a Slayer at WBC 2009 in Atlanta I felt completely clueless for the first time in a long time.  I knew that adjusting the pressure was giving me different results in my shots, but I didn’t know why and I didn’t know which adjustments were leading to which result.  Surely if I had spent more than just the hour or so I did in the booth I’m sure things would have come together better under the Slayer crew’s guidance and explanation, but I really felt overwhelmed by possibility.  It was an awesomly horrifying feeling to have everything seem so “beyond” my ability to comprehend.  If that wasn’t enough, last year La Marzocco, the fearless leaders of the espresso machine industry (and I’ll let everyone else argue on that point)  introduced a machine that really leaves me scratching my head.  Labeled at the same WBC event simply as “New La Marzocco Technology Inside” was what we now know as the Strada, a machine that allows us the most play with pressure that we have ever seen.  A paddle on the front of the machine allows the user full control of all things pressure.  On the Slayer a certain pressure “recipe” is created, for example, 3 bars to start, then build to 9, then hold until 25 seconds into the shot, before slowly fading back down to 3 and then totally off.  Where the Strada differs is that it allows you to do, more or less, whatever you want.  Sliding the paddle towards the left builds the pressure higher, to the right relieves the pump’s pressure.  You could, if you wanted, build some crazy pressure profile for a specific coffee where you introduced 2 bars of pressure, then built the pressure to 8 bars, then spiked it to 9 for a second before bringing it back 7, and then spiking it again, then fading to 5, and then 3 and then off… I’ll let your imagination run from there.  The possibilities with this machine are a little beyond most any barista’s comprehension right now, as far as I’m concerned.  I really don’t think there is a barista out there who could walk up to one of these machines and feel totally confident they could tweak the pressure all over the place and be able to predict what the outcome was going to be (and be correct) more than 5 out of 10 times.  The results from a drastic change is pressure is something I can detect, but I’m not sure I could pinpoint the difference between an 8 second ramp of pressure and a 7 second ramp.

So we have this “pressure thing” that we are trying to get our minds wrapped around.  We are starting to understand more and more of it everyday, that is for certain.  Slayers are popping up in artisan cafes all over the place with some of the countries best baristas putting the machine through it’s paces.  We are learning the machine and learning how to best manipulate it to get the best results.

And now the talks surrounding temperature profiling begins.  In other words, being able to fluctuate the temperature during a shot up and down the same way we are currently doing with pressure.  Gaa!  I haven’t the slightest clue what this is going to do for the espresso world in the future, but I’m excited to see, that’s for certain.  Being able to sweeten and soften a shot by raising and lowering temperature during different parts of the extraction is very intriguing to me.  If anyone reading this has a machine that allows this to happen and wants to do some experimenting please contact me.

Temperature stability? Check.
Pressure adjustment during a shot? Check.
Temperature adjustment during a shot? Check?

Technology is in the fast lane, pulling away from us, and it’s about time.

-bry

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