We Need to Talk About EK43s

 

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:

http://coffeecollective.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/ben-kaminsky-advanced-brewing-workshop.html

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[1] 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:

  • Time: whilst brewing filter coffee through many methods is slow, at least you can do it away from your espresso bar

  • Water usage: cafes in many european cities using RO are quite aware of the effort it takes to produce perfect water for brewing[2] more water volume through your espresso machine means greater storage requirement of filtered water – there goes another cover

  • Using tools in a way they are not designed: I don’t believe the design of any modern temperature stable espresso machine has figured for regular output of 250ml shots – some of the older ones (pre 1940) were designed for it – but PID’s weren’t included

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[3] 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[4],  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.[5]

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.

——————————————————————————————-

[1] serving is not to be interpreted here as distinct from hospitality – I ought to write a post on that instead.

[2] 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).

[3] (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).

[4] 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.

[5] these are not quotes, but a fair record of the sentiment – I neglected to ask Siri to record all conversations.

5 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About EK43s

  1. Just checking, is this post a dig at:

    A new style of coffee
    A new way of preparing espresso
    A top quality deli grinder

    Personally I’m all for new ways of preparing/serving/drinking coffee, variety in coffee is king in my opinion.

    I’m not sure how the EK43 can be summed up as not suitable for espresso preparation, after all its designed to grind coffee so why exclude it from espresso? In fact I can see many positives from using a grinder like this for espresso. After all what we want from a grinder is:

    Minimum time between grinding and brewing
    Accurate & contorolability of grind size & dose
    Coffee grinds all of similar size
    Minimum geind retention

    I use an EK43, it ticks all of these boxes. When used as a grinder for multiple coffees and multiple brewing methods it suddenly becomes an incredibly economical way for a cafe with a varied coffee offer to operate. Rather than having seperate grinders for different coffees and brewing you have one for all!

    You do have to get used to pre weighing your coffee, but this is not new, we’ve been doing it for years with manual brewer coffee and people with a Versalab grinder this is common place. Further to this I don’t know any barista who trusts their grinder to give them an accurate and consistent dose anyway! The EK43 used efficiently does not need to be labour intensive or slow, I don’t buy in to this argument one bit, if anything it’s a faster way to prepare coffee.

    I’m looking at this from a coffee shop and coffee offer point of view and can sum up by saying:

    Buy equipment that you can get the most out of and get the most of the equipment you buy, whatever it is.

    I’m yet to have a ‘coffee shot’ (odd name???) but I’m intrigued and am looking forward to my 1st.

  2. This is going to be an interesting write–I hope it’s interesting reading–it may display as many contradictions, apologies, errors and assumptions as in the original post… this is primarily due to the contradictions, conflict, and fights occurring in my very little head!

    I was flattered by the fact people read, discussed, commented upon and shared my post.* I put it out there as it felt more constructive to publish than discuss privately; I did not expect or even (I think) desire agreement with my thoughts and no offense is taken at any response. I’m sensitive in a very attractive 21st century male way, but not that sensitive…

    Strong criticism from smart people: how to respond?

    I’m going to respond in long paragraphs – I won’t touch on every point but hopefully I’ll be able to nail most of my thoughts here.

    My Motivation

    In the comments above Ed asked what I was trying to say

    The title of my post was We Need To Talk About EK43s, not EK43s Are Shit or Some People Are Silly. Although my writing may have been a bit rambly for some to follow, my ultimate conclusion was this: I think there is value in waiting to see how things develop before rushing out to embrace the new. Even if they didn’t agree with the rest of my post, most people seem to agree with me on this one (and most important) point.

    The goal of my post was not to directly attack the new ideas being presented, their creators, or the early adopters. The goal of my post was to question the assumptions made by those excited by their work, to offer a contrary voice to what I felt were a limited set of responses, almost exclusively endorsing the use of the EK43, and offer a counterpoint challenging some of the techniques.

    Part of writing things here is a learning tool for me – I’m much more comfortable being someone who asks silly questions than someone who does something he doesn’t understand – I reserve the right to be stupid, to be wrong and to change my mind on some or all of what I write – If I learn something along the way then I win**

    My Lack of Direct Knowledge

    As I said early on in my first post (and as James points out similarly early in his), I didn’t attend any courses or sessions relating to the EK43. However, if my main point (as I’ve clarified above) is “I think that there is value to see how things develop before rushing out to embrace the new,” my lack of direct knowledge shouldn’t affect my ability to make that point.

    I think, again, I need to clarify the reason for my post–I think some might have felt that I was personally attacking them for ‘jumping on the bandwagon.’ The people who have written about the EK43–James, Colin, Jeremy–they have all participated in the courses, they have experimented with the grinder, and they understand, 100%, that this is a work in progress that is specific to their shops. They’re not jumping on the bandwagon, they are the bandwagon.

    I wrote this blog post for people who will not have benefited from attending the limited course opportunities offered to get a stronger idea of these concepts. I’ve received a number of enquiries on grinder prices, lead times and usefulness–only one of these enquiries came from someone who had attended the courses. Multiple 2 hour plus conversations about your opinions on a subject during the working week seem like a strong case for a written account to me, the value people place on my opinion is up to them

    any misinterpretation of the proposition and it’s purpose can easily be mine alone – but i think it’s fair to say that whilst the full knowledge remains with a small few yet some results are presented on a global scale, misinterpretation is unavoidable – a joy of our interconnected age

    I feel like some people have interpreted the sale of courses and appearance of grinders in a small number of locations as these concepts being generally accepted as the direction in which speciality coffee should be going. Colin’s post clearly defined 3FE’s interpretation, reasons for adoption, and caveats on replication, but I felt like some readers may have skipped the last, and very important, points.

    I agree I should go to the course if I’m able, excitedly and with an open mind, I will endeavour to taste coffee brewed multiple ways with multiple grind profiles on the EK and let people know my thoughts as clearly and honestly as I can (dates are being diaried now) some tasting occurred last week, but what I experienced was not a scientific test or controlled by proponents of the ideas***

    The benefit of smaller grind particle distribution

    I believe we all agree that a more uniform grind size will allow better control and more consistent extraction. It’s much harder to determine whether we agree that this results in better tasting coffee.

    I have no issue with the suggestion that coffee brewed outside the BCC’s 18-22% ‘box’ could be better tasting than coffee from within that range. I’ve certainly experienced this with more conventional grinding equipment and varied coffees and I’ve always believed that the box can have the ability to cage us.

    James says that some/many espresso grinders have a hard limit on extraction. This may be true though my numbers differ (I’ve experienced tasty shots beyond 20%, and found water quantity to have a huge bearing on this, more significant perhaps than grind distribution) – Another question – Is it suggested the EK43 has no limit on good extraction at all?

    Suitability of the EK43 as an espresso grinder

    I understand Ed’s points above (with a question – that have we all been looking for grinds of similar size? have we told grinder manufacturers this?) so maybe a little clarity here – I’m not questioning the EK43′s ability to produce a grind fine enough for espresso, I’m questioning it’s suitability for use in a busy commercial environment

    I challenged its cost, working on an assumption that this would be an extra spend replacing functioning existing equipment and that purchasers would want this investment to add more sales to their bottom line (not just alter where the money from existing sales ended up going).

    If you’re going to buy a new grinder anyway then this is a different story. James makes the case for buying a more expensive grinder well, but it’s only when we reach the waste part that we’re looking at something specific to this proposition. There are grinders that dose more inconsistently than others, at both high and low volume; there are grinders that carry more doses within chutes than others leading to increased wastage when you adjust grind. If your business has grinders that suffer from the most extreme of these ills, your wastage will be significantly higher than otherwise, so it’s very hard to generalise on a % saving here.

    My issues with using the grinder for espresso production is that the entirety of the machine has been designed for a different style of use. Yes, this is speculation on my part. However, I would ask similar questions before I bought a Smart car to race the 24hr Le Mans, especially if that car was the only one I was buying for my driving needs.

    My comments on burr age and cost are badly worded – I’m not trying to imply that these burrs wear less well than any other, but it is my understanding that sharpness is part of what allows greater uniformity, so I’m assuming that the benefit the grinders are being purchased for will diminish with use and if all the coffee you are grinding on site goes through one set of blades, all the wear will occur there too

    In terms of labour, I can live with pre-weighed shots. It’s the moving of ground coffee from cup to portafilter with jam funnels that strikes me the largest bit of extra work. Ed commented that he felt like the EK43 method was faster than any of the methods we currently use, but after my limited experience with the EK43 method, I don’t think I understand how that could be possible.

    James says no one is proposing this grinder as a final solution. This was my point; I’m glad he emphasised it!

    Critisism Of Coffee Shots

    I agree: my critisism is unfair and untested. I’m skeptical of the idea but open to being proven wrong. A shop has chosen to replace some of their filter offering with drinks made this way–it’s a bold step for a cafe, but it’s an incredibly bold step for other cafes to start replicating without the wealth of testing and thought that those individuals put into it. If I was planning to open a shop today, I would be very hesitant to choose creating brewed coffee this way over a more conventional (and understood) automatic brewer or manual brewing that, for all its flaws, is capable of making delicious tasty coffee.

    My RO comments were wrong! I didn’t think of drinks replacing other methods but only the change in what was happening within an espresso set-up–silly me!

    Were we all wrong?

    James calls my points here a Straw Man – that I’m creating a fictional position that no one has raised – I get his point but again I feel that this is something people have inferred from others adoption of these techniques – I really like the fact that we all agree this investment in new tools is not neccesary to serve delicious drinks, i think it is a point worth making again and again

    are more delicious drinks possible? perhaps
    will customers value the extra tastiness inferred? perhaps

    will this be easier to talk about in 6 months time? yes it will

    Against Innovation

    I don’t feel I’m against innovation. 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.”

    I am however against advising my customers, who trust my judgement and shout at me when I get things wrong, to do something I think only a handful of people understand at this point. I’m working on increasing my understanding–I think we should all do that–and then make the choices we feel are right for our contexts.

    I want to be extremely clear: I do not think anyone is ASKING me or ADVISING me to advise my customers this way. I simply find it difficult to convince those who haven’t yet taken the class that the work being done with the EK43 is still a work in progress when all of the cool, innovative kids are excited about it.

    I’m not going to stop any of my customers buying this grinder or trying any of these things out, in fact I look forward to working with the first ones that do, but it will be on the basis that this is experimental, a financial punt and we may all want to try something different next year and some of these grinders will be retired when a more evolved machine becomes available–I don’t think anyone will disagree with me that this is an understandable position to take.

    love

    *the joy of twitter spreading thoughts faster than man can blink, means things can also pass me by, very quickly – most people commented outside the comment function of this blog – If you said something that I’ve missed ping me a message and I’ll get it linked in here
    ** a great video on the point of arguments http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_h_cohen_for_argument_s_sake.html

    *** syphon brewed coffee ground via EK43 – brewed to a goal 21% extraction – very tasty, followed by a blind taste of 2 well made espresso, same coffee, one ground ek43 and brewed to recipe set out in Col’s blogpost- both nice. The one preferred by both me and barista, not from the EK43 (more intensity, plus changing layers of sweetness in the finish than the other simpler tasting shot) , this proves nothing :)

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