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Espresso Nirvana: Can it be Reached?
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Espresso Nirvana. I think every espresso-head wants to reach this thing, this level of perfection, but you know what? We never will. It hurts I know, but we never will reach this level of perfection. Why is that? Because the bar is constantly being raised. Think about it:

In the 1840s and 1850s, coffee making experimentation appeared to reach a zenith. Vacuum brewers, initially invented in Germany, were being designed and sold in France and England, as well as the rest of Europe. Vacuum brewing applies a certain amount of pressure, or force on the grounds, extracting more coffee essence than normal gravity extraction does. But not much - not much at all.

In the 1850s, further attempts to apply greater than gravity force to extract coffee essence are developed. Percolation comes about, steam applications, and hydrostatic pressure, in the form of the Edouard Loisel Hydrostatic, 2000 cups per hour machine initially displayed at the Paris Expo of 1855.  At the time, they felt they reached the peak of possible coffee brewing technology.

1920s Espresso Nirvana
This was the height of espresso nirvana in the 1920s - the Victoria Arduino espresso machine

But by the 1880s, the Germans, French and Italians are experimenting with using steam pressure to force water to higher than 1 atmosphere (normal air pressure) to get more essence out of finer grind coffee. By 1905, the first commercial success - the Pavoni/Bezerra Ideale Espresso machine. This machine extracted a heavy coffee essence using about 1.5 atmospheres of pressure.  Was this the peak? Many thought so.

From that period to the end of World War II, the world knew espresso coffee as something that was more about making coffee expressly for you (one cup at a time), than the beverage we know today as espresso. Machines like the Pavonis, the Victoria Ardunio and others ruled the day. The bar remained the same, and was not to rise again until 1946 when Gaggia developed the spring piston system that produced an amazing (for the time) 60psi of pressure, or about 4 atmospheres of pressure on the fine coffee grinds, producing the world's first authentic crema-based espresso beverage. The bar wasn't just raised - it was completely redesigned. A new coffee drink was born. Maybe this was espresso nirvana...

It wasn't. During the 1950s, the spring/piston lever system first introduced by Gaggia was widely copied by other Italian espresso machine makers. The biggest problem with this gear was the inconsistency it allowed - the pressure, eventually raised to 9 atmospheres (130 psi) was directly dependent on the strength and "touch" of the barista. Faema changed all this in 1961 when they introduced their E61 Espresso machine. Rotary pump driven. Heat exchange water delivery. Continuously heated brewgroups. Large steaming boiler. It had it all. Welcome to modern day espresso. Maybe this was the peak.

Since the term was first used back in the turn of the century, espresso has meant many things. Today it means a specific beverage type - the deep, rich and thick black beverage with the dark golden-reddish brown crema head. 1.5 ounces per espresso, less than 1 ounce per ristretto. Barely 40 years old.

Inside a machine
Inside Today's Machine
This is the complex innards of one of today's most modern semi auto espresso machines, and this is a consumer / prosumer model! Imagine the commercial versions!

I think it would be the height of arrogance for us to consider today's technology, which is largely based on that E61 machine, is the absolute peak. The end all, be all.

And while it is arrogant, I can also understand why. We have the ability to push pressures way beyond 130psi. We have the ability to almost atomize coffee grounds. But studies, tests and experiments have shown that the 130-150psi level, the 7 grams of coffee, the 1.5 ounce finished shot seems to be the pinnacle, the espresso nirvana.

But nope, we haven't. Something very interesting has happened just in the last three years, as of December, 2005. We've discovered just how crucial exacting temperature profiles can be to a shot of espresso. We're seeing the development and implementation of PID controls to get the flow of water to the grouphead stabilized down to 0.1F. And we're seeing the results. Machines like the Synesso Cyncra, the La Marzocco GB5, and the highly experimental La Marzocco GS3, the epitome of temperature profile control, are showing us that no, we have not come near enough yet to espresso nirvana.

And it doesn't end there. The growing voice of the professional Barista, as heard through the World Barista Championships and other venues and online forums tells us there's another gaping, glaring hole in the formula - the grinder. We're still using grinders today based on 1960s technology and 1950s design and usability. We use grinders today that heat the ground coffee, don't grind even enough, and don't distribute every particle of the grind to the portafilter. But that too, my friends, is changing. Work is being done right now, albeit quietly, on grinders that will meet the exceeding demands professional, world championship calibre Baristas are demanding.

And there's more
When I first wrote this article, way back in 2001 (and modified it a year or two later), I can't believe how naive I was on things. The machine is only part of the equation. The good news is, machines like the La Marzocco GS3 take the machine out of the equation. It makes the machine as technically perfect and stable as we can ask today.

The grinder too is something being addressed.

But there's three other factors. There's water. We still don't understand enough about how water influences the espresso shot. Yes, we know to use filtered, clean water, but how clean? How filtered? When I brew with clean water from Vancouver's water system, the resulting shots taste better to me than Cirqua filtered water does in competitions.

Then there's the coffee. Listen up folks. Coffee is massively evolving, right now. As I write this, some of the best coffees the world has ever seen are on market, right now. Cup of Excellence coffees. Microlots and limited origin products from individual roasters. Freezing green to prolong taste. It's all giving us coffee that is just mind blowing. And it constantly changes the game - roasters will have to continually retool and re-evaluate their espresso blends to get even more out of them. It never ends.

And the third thing - you, the Barista. Do you know that Paul Bassett, a former WBC champion, pulled a better shot for me on a $1,000 consumer machine and a $150 grinder than I was able to ever pull, in my life, on a La Marzocco GS3 and a Mazzer Super Jolly grinder? It's skill folks. A truly gifted Barista can make equipment, water, and beans sing.

It won't stop, and that's the true beauty of espresso. It's ever evolving. Yesterday's nirvana is tomorrow's standard cup. Artistry is a huge factor. Is a chef an artist? I think so. The Barista is too. Art never sits still.

We could sit for days and argue things like, what's the perfect size for a single shot? How much crema is important? What is the ideal brewing time and temperature? To tamp or not to tamp? Is espresso only an "espresso" when it is under a certain volume of liquid per grams of coffee used? Should you use robusta? Should you sweeten it? Why stop at 9 atmospheres? Can a super auto produce authentic espresso? And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

There still is no hard and fast rule on what true espresso is, and if you brought together 100 professional, established and well schooled baristas in a room, you'd get 100 different opinions. With that said, I have my own opinions, and I'm very proud and happy to say, they constantly evolve.

And the same should go for you. Your espresso nirvana could just be pulling the first shot of espresso you've ever had that didn't make you wince. It could be the tenth shot in a row that made you wish you could keep the lingering aftertaste forever. It's important to know that true espresso nirvana, the proverbial god shot, may never exist. Or, it may exist every single time you go through the process of preparing, pulling, and drinking a shot of espresso.

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