Coffee Talk: Dialing In

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By Danny Pinnell, SCAA

At SCAA, we love seeing members come into the office. This week’s coffee talk was a particularly special treat as Barista Guild of America Executive Council member Alexandra LittleJohn of Equator Coffees and Teas came by and prepared coffee for us.

Alex came by and told us about a coffee and espresso tasting she was having with some clients later that afternoon.

“My tasting isn’t until 2 this afternoon, but I’m dialing in 4 espressos and 8 coffees for one of my clients to taste,” said Alex. “I want them to have the best representation of our coffee – to do multiple different brews of this coffee and multiple different brews of this espresso.”

Peter knew it would be good to take advantage of the opportunity we had with our expert visitor and asked her to explain the process of what setting up espresso for tasting or for service is like, a process known as “dialing in.”

Dialing in refers to adjusting the dial on top of the espresso grinder until we’re getting the right grind setting to the right time, the right coffee and water “hang out session” (as Alex calls it), to make the coffee taste the way we want it to taste.

liljonMany of the coffees Alex was working on dialing in were brand-new and weren’t presented with specifications on how to dial them in. She would start with the basics that she learned through SCAA — including the one to one-and-a-half ratio standard for espresso – and then from there figure out how she would expand those parameters to make the espresso the best it could be.

“Am I going to change dose? Am I going to change grind? Am I going to change time? And I have to do that for all three espressos,” said Alex.

When baristas walk into a bar and dial in their coffee every morning, they are usually working with the same coffee every day. This may seem like the dialing in process would be easier, but it is not because the coffee changes.

“The coffee changes due to barometric pressure. We’re in Southern California, so we have pretty even-keeled weather,” said Alex. “But let’s say you walk in and it’s been humid for the last couple days, or if your roaster tells you, ‘we just ran out of espresso, this was just roasted 14 hours ago,’ or, ‘this coffee we found yesterday and it was roasted two weeks ago, we need to use it, sorry we didn’t tell you the roast date’ – all those are things that come to play when they’re dialing in.”

Alex mentioned that weather conditions and other factors like that that change the dynamics of the coffee. You had it tasting really good and now it doesn’t taste good anymore due to humidity or temperature changes. Sometimes – unfortunately in the competition scenario – that change can happen in between a competitor’s prep period and their performance period, in that five to ten minutes that happens in between. Things can go haywire and that’s one of the challenges that baristas have to deal with.

Even in day-to-day café operations must baristas dial in throughout the day because coffee ages as the hours go on and as the day goes on.

“When I was at Starbucks, we had to dial in our espresso every hour, [which consisted of] lifting a machine and turning a dial,” said Alex. “At our cafes, we require our baristas to taste the espresso and calibrate back to those specifications every hour and a half…that’s why we have consistent coffee all day long. We’re constantly adjusting to how the coffee is changing.”

When dialing in her espresso, Alex will take notes of the grind settings similar to how competitors do at competition during their prep time.

11379238_397864990420566_420259810_n-1“I’ll be taking notes – pretty detailed notes – this is my gram weight of my dry coffee, this is my gram weight of my wet coffee, and also what timing that was so that when I go back in five hours for my tasting, I have a big sign of where to start,” said Alex. “And that’s going to change every day. That’s kind of what dialing in is, and so that’s why when we schedule our baristas in the morning for a fast-paced café we schedule them in an hour ahead of time so they can come in, they can set up their bar, they can taste their coffee, and they can make sure they’re doing the best representation of their coffee every single day.”

When asked how to determine whether to turn the dial to the left or to the right when dialing in, Alex compared coffee to rocks and sand.

“If I have a bucket of rocks and a bucket of sand and I pour water over each, which one is the water going to get through quicker? The rocks, right? Because water’s lazy and it takes the path of least resistance. If my shots are running too fast, I need to make the coffee more like sand. If the shots are running too slow, I need to make the coffee more like rocks,” said Alex. “So coffee and water, their hang sesh, their hangout time, is what makes coffee taste good.”

Peter closed the coffee talk with the analogy of espresso service as a performance, “you’re onstage, somebody comes to you, and tells you what they want and you have to perform on to them. The whole dialing in ritual is getting all your stuff ready but it’s also rehearsing for your performance later. That’s true, certainly for barista competitions, but it’s also really true for day-in-day-out things, you know, and that’s why that period is very important.”