Prologue: Why We Need To Talk About EK43s*
*a coffee grinder named similarly to the AK-47, mostly used by radicals with extreme ideas…
At the WBC in Melbourne Matt Perger, a super smart guy along with his coach Ben Kaminski (also super smart) presented a routine filled with new ideas and demonstrated a vision of how the espresso machine could be used: by using a grinder not usually associated with espresso preparation and by allowing a different control of extraction parameters. Around the same time, a few people I have great respect for have embraced some of these new concepts, putting them on bar alongside or to replace their existing menu.
Ben has run some training events in Europe, discussing the what, why, and how of these techniques and the drinks they create—I have not been to these sessions; I wish I had. Should they become available elsewhere I would wholeheartedly suggest going—investment in new knowledge is always worthwhile. The next class is in Copenhagen, details here:
Following those sessions, I had a number of calls from customers asking for my opinions, had a few conversations with those who knew more details about various factors, read a few blog posts…
Jeremy from Prufrock: http://www.prufrockcoffee.com/2013/08/the-kaminsky-report/
Colin from 3FE: http://colinharmon.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/ek43-tales-from-the-bar/
… and decided that i should publish my opinions here….
EK43s: Long-Awaited Solution?
It’s been proposed that the EK43, a grinder designed years ago for the spice milling industry which exhibits improved grind particle size distribution can be the solution for poor (or poorly controlled) extraction for both filter coffee and espresso brewing. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m skipping why improved distribution is desirable. Read Jeremy’s post above–he’s cool and we like his words.
This new application of technology allows (the salesman lowers his voice to a whisper, drawing in the expectant crowd) not just a new paradigm of what good extraction is, but the revolutionary idea of making filter style coffee from an espresso machine.
I have two issues with this:
1. Is it a good solution to the problem?
2. Is the problem really a problem?
I’m phrasing them in this order as I’m primarily interested in the second question, but the first one is important:
Question No. 1: Is it a good solution to the problem?
The innovators and early adopters of these techniques and set-ups are getting tasty coffee with the EK43. That’s great! But, if we’re talking about it as a “solution” for both filter coffee and espresso, I’m finding it very hard to buy into as an idea.
It is undeniable that the grinder achieves a different grind distribution and allows greater control over extraction % and different flavour properties in the cup–we can and should debate whether or not these results are improvements (only however whilst sharing the same drink, not different roasts of different coffees, brewed with different water in different time zones) but that doesn’t mean this grinder is a good solution.
I can completely buy into ‘improved grind-size distribution’ from a filter coffee perspective–I did just that when I purchased an über grinder from the Marco team in 2011 that gave improved grind distribution over it’s little brother the Tanzania. The EK43 may well be an improvement on this technical measure and as a grinder for filter brewing.
I don’t, however, buy into the EK43 as a grinder for espresso preparation. Here’s why:
- New grinders are expensive – how many more cups of coffee do you need to sell (or how much more do you need to charge per cup) to cover a £1500 investment in a tool you happily lived without yesterday
- This grinder is not made for espresso service – we’re taking a tool designed for a different purpose and pushing to the limits parts of it that just aren’t made for high volume use – things will break (and will thus be more expensive) in the long run
- The blades are sharper and more expensive—they will dull faster. Let’s say burrs for a standard on-demand grinder are £80, these burrs are closer to £350, and likely to need replacing more often to maintain the virtue for which they are being prized
- Using the grinder is labour intensive – it takes longer. Does the subjective quality of the shots produced add up to enough benefit to charge more per drink your staff make? Even if slower service is acceptable to customers, it still reduces the amount of drinks a person can make within a given timeframe
These are incredibly boring reasons to supposedly write off the future of coffee preparation; in fact, I understand deeply the argument that cost should never be the deciding factor in a business focussed on delivering quality. However, it is still part of the equation: I don’t give a shit if you sold the best coffee in the universe if you’ve closed due to bankruptcy when I follow trip adviser to your door.
Is £1500 spent going to damage an historic, famous landmark coffee bar of the speciality movement? Probably not, but it could be the margin between success and failure for a less established business, and slower service and insufficient capacity are not something customers are crying out for right now.
If we want a more uniform grind size for espresso brewing, or even a fully uniform one, there needs to be better understanding of what’s causing higher uniformity of grind particle size (burrs, motor, direction/angle of burrs) and then the integration of those factors into a grinder body that allows on demand dosing so we can stop pissing around making coffee and focus attention on serving coffee.
Coming back to filter coffee and moving away from the grinder, to a topic I’m less familiar with – coffees shots: do we need to be brewing filter through an espresso machine? Are the flaws in manual and automated filter brewing so high that the solution would be to brew coffee exclusively through metal baskets attached to pump driven pressurised machines because at least that way temperature stability and pouring technique aren’t issues?
There are obvious implications in using espresso machines to brew coffee to filter coffee style volume and TDS% goals:
As well as flaws, there are virtues to the way we currently brew filter coffee. I enjoy the clarity of flavour that reduced undissolved solids allow in my Chemex, and I appreciate the difference between my consistently well brewed 6l drip brewers output and the cup profile I get from my Eva solo. In fact, I adore tasting a coffee a different way and finding a completely different reason to love it.
Personally - and I fight internally over this all the time - I don’t think I want every cup of coffee I drink to come from a box behind a bar, with the promise that it was ground at that point the only remaining nod to ‘prepared for you’ the same way as every other drink being served from there was. That doesn’t suggest to me great engagement between staff and their product and it doesn’t help me appreciate that making coffee involves knowledge and craft. In fact, pre-portioned doses ready for any possible menu item reminds me more of the McFlurry machine.
This kind of leads me on to…
Question No. 2: Is the problem really a problem?
I don’t want to be the guy who stands up for the status quo, for the good enough, and for the adequate – I don’t want to say that selling coffee is a numbers game that requires fast food style service and high volume to succeed in a market with high rent and low unit value…
I am, however, going to question whether coffee made and served the way speciality cafes have been trying to over the last 10 years is that bad.
Let’s start by clearly defining my bias:
- I’ve had delicious espresso, more than once
- I’ve had delicious filter coffee, more than once
These seem like really silly things to write down – I would seriously ask why anyone would passionately drink, let alone sell coffee if they couldn’t say this – but bear with me, you’ll see why it’s important.
None of these delicious drinks needed modal grind size, or low grind size distribution – they needed good coffee, and people working hard with the goal of delivering consistently something they thought was nice tasting and worthwhile.
All would have benefitted from better technology and better extraction, as everything always will, but their absence hasn’t prevented me from wholeheartedly sharing a message and cup of quality with others.
I am not arguing against the benefits of more uniform particle size – that’s something I can understand and agree with, or that extraction %’s are simultaneously both useful in understanding coffee we’ve brewed and limited to an average of what has occurred during extraction.
I am arguing that we are able to serve delicious coffee if we so wish, and whilst different taste goals should and can be explored, there is value in what we’ve built so far.
Question No. 3: Were We All Wrong?
In separate discussions with two people working in bars who are using the EK43 in part of their service – individuals who I think talk a lot of sense about coffee and have served me many tasty things – words were said that caused an almost primal reaction within me.
Within one conversation it was suggested that, ‘the coffee tastes different, I’m not sure it always tastes better, but we’re selling it because we want to extract the best we can and this may enable us to do it.’
Why would we stop selling something we enjoyed yesterday and replace it with something we’re not sure we enjoy – isn’t that what the back room/ R&D is for?
Within another, ‘as part of adopting this we may need to develop our understanding of what good espresso tastes like’, that perhaps we’ve been apologising for or skirting over the fact that espresso was acidic, when in fact it was our inability to brew correctly.
I’m incredibly averse to this suggestion.
When I judge espresso as tasty it is a reaction to flavour and texture, not a filing of it against a context we’ve established as a movement. When espresso has acidity and we enjoy it, that’s because it’s nice. When it’s too acidic, too bitter, or even too sweet, we should adjust our recipe, adjust our technique, or not serve it.
What we enjoy from coffee is up to us, and arguably some of our positions allow us to influence what some people drink and how much they enjoy it – but the market (or our chosen part of it) will always tell us what they really think in the long term.
tl;dr: I think there is value in waiting to see how things develop before rushing out to embrace the new.
Epilogue: The Point
I’m not saying that those using these new systems are wrong, or that it won’t be part of or inform our shared coffee future. In fact, I’m proud to work in an industry that has many people, trying many new things, and I can’t wait to taste them all—Innovation is good, taking (calculated) risks is good, following your nose, pallet, or gut is good.
However, I’m shamed by our rush to embrace a silver bullet to fix our problems, by our desire to be the coolest kids on the block, and our fear of being left behind.
Lets get this straight – if you buy into this now you will not be the first person to do this in a shop, there will be no first place prize, the novelty is not valuable – in 6 months lessons will have been learnt and the cutting edge will have moved on, possibly leaving scars, possibly some people gloating at my idiot naysaying and almost definitely some tidied up lessons that may or may not include aspects extolled today as progress.
Doing something expensive, risky, and different because someone else thinks it’s the future of your industry isn’t clever—it’s certainly not innovation, taking a calculated risk, or following your nose. It’s playing follow the leader where the leader doesn’t know you, how your business operates, how your staff work, and who your customers are.
I’m disappointed by our lack of faith in the drink we gave to someone yesterday, and I’m pissed off that we still think a new toy will fix everything when the proven reality, not just in coffee but in every industry, is that growth and improvement come with small, boring improvements and an aggregate of marginal gains, not an old deli grinder.
 serving is not to be interpreted here as distinct from hospitality – I ought to write a post on that instead.
 lets ignore the waste of energy in discarded water and the cost of all our incoming waters pre treatment by government agencies, and the fact that in a world that’s almost completely blue such a tiny percentage of it is drinkable, and most of that is in the wrong places for the majority of our growing global population (sorry, soapbox off).
 (21.1%, large mug full with floral notes, white grape and light brown sugar from a Costa Rican beauty – only manual input required 2 finger presses).
 though i’m unsure of solid, scientific evidence beyond anecdotal testing of brews with different size sieved grounds tasted and mojo’d – that’s not really peer reviewed study.
 these are not quotes, but a fair record of the sentiment – I neglected to ask Siri to record all conversations.