Brewing with Slayer
Feb 02, 2009
Third Wave Coffee: Direct & Specific
Why would you even think of building the Apple in a market where IBM is effortlessly kicking out products designed by the world’s leading IT experts and most capable computer scientists on the planet – not to mention a time when Atari and Commodore are already well on their way to delivering everything that the home user could ever want?
The answer to that question is the same for Apple as it is for Slayer.
It’s because our needs and aspirations as individuals are not defined by the power of an established brand or the influence of gurus and seers telling us where our boundaries are. Our needs and aspirations are the province of our imaginations alone. And in seeing if we can do something better and more artfully than it’s ever been done before, we are apt to surprise ourselves at what we can accomplish. Even out of a modest start something great could happen.
About three years ago, Jason and I began to experiment with brewing single origin coffees on an espresso machine, for reasons that might surprise you.
At the time, we had started drinking direct trade, estate sourced coffees, almost exclusively. These coffees were very exciting. Not only were they purchased directly from individual farmers and coops, they were cultivar-specific in several cases, and sourced by people who we know and whose judgement in coffee we greatly respect.
As we French pressed and drank, what blew our minds was the spectrum of flavor that burst from these unusual limited-edition single origins. I’m not saying that what we were tasting was entirely new. We had experienced floral, chocolate or berry tones in coffee before, many times.
And Jason is a professional roaster in Canada, and happens to be the son of a professional roaster, so he grew up with these flavor profiles.
What I am saying is that we had never experienced flavors of such exaggerated intensity, so intense we were tempted to accuse the roaster of adding cacao to the roast or blueberry syrup. Or jasmine flowers. Or LSD. Totally, and utterly out of this world, it seemed impossible for coffee as we understood it, to be this great.
A personal quest to liberate these crazy coffee qualities
This is really where the story of Slayer takes off. It began with a question posed right there. Can you get flavors even close to the ones we were experiencing from a French press, by brewing the same coffees on an espresso machine? If you could, imagine the possibilities? However, when we tried brewing our elite coffees on standard espresso machines we fell flat on our faces.
The coffees that we had been gushing and cooing over, showed a completely different side, often sour, fruit-gone-bad, bitter, even gut wrenching. The most elegant coffees ignored our wishes, showing a cat-like indifference to what we wanted. Miraculously, we didn’t give up. We also began to suspect that existing espresso machines might be falling short, even for the coffees purpose blended for use at 9 bars and 198 to 203 degrees F.
With the help of Dan Urwiler we began rigging up espresso machines in different ways. Dan set up machines where temperature could be controlled very specifically, using PID and some other tricks. We played with grind and tamp and diffusion screws and even screens. We drilled down on these items with an almost manic focus, looking to uncover the secret to getting a god shot from a single origin varietal.
We also went back in time and surveyed the way espresso was brewed in days gone by. Lever machines, vertical machines, early traditionals. Many of these machines lacked electronics and even pumps. Some of the oldest machines we saw even involved rocks, no kidding, as the weight to hold down the boiler “safety valve”.
Leveraging Technology to gain Control of the complete Brew Cycle
Lever machines really caught the attention of our palettes. We measured the spring coefficients for traditional and contemporary lever machines at a standards lab in Seattle to see how these influenced the results of brewing. Meanwhile, Dan put together the espresso device we needed to let us play with controlling pressure easily and conveniently. The technical elegance of this piece, and its operational simplicity was the break through for us.
Once we gained control over pressure, we began to really play around and to experience our most significant results. With control over pressure, coffees blossomed in new ways that we simply hadn’t experienced on any espresso machine before then. We were proving to ourselves that the espresso brewing device could be configured to open up the spectrum of coffee flavor way beyond where it was. Controlling pressure didn’t add anything new to the flavor, but it did expand the flavor profiles that already existed and enabled them to read through more dramatically.
A Eureka Moment
Some roasters who experienced this with us, stood back from the Slayer Frankenstein machine when they were through, almost in tears, and said that this was the very first time they had ever really tasted their coffee. Imagine perfecting a espresso blend for a decade, then discovering that it has this unforgettable, beautiful new dimension that you never fully realized before. It was earthshaking.