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Season’s Cheer – Raise a Glass to Third Wave!

The Season is here, and I hope everyone is enjoying this time of jolly abandon as much as we are–finding an uplifting tonic (figuratively, if not literally) to fend off the doldrums of these long, dark days of the winter solstice. I wish this, indeed, but maybe not as much as all that if you must drive, do calculus, or study for the GRE’s.

But if you are in fair Seattle this holiday, Slayer hopes you seize the opportunity to enjoy the heffeweisens, stout ales, and hearty brews of all descriptions that are being poured by the flagon-full at the numerous breweries and public houses around town. You never know for sure what the future will bring your way, so make sure you enjoy these boisterous beverages and the merry companionship of your groupies, hearties, and special someones in a way that warms your soul and brings a smiling to your heart.

This season has been so merry for our tribe that I nearly forgot to post this one last note–before we bid 2007 farewell and welcome in a new and hopeful year. Forgive me for keeping this missive un-customarily brief. However, I know you will understand what a pull the winter festivities have on our time and attention–and what a toll these activities can wreak on clear writing and logical narrative. However, if you are one of the ones reading this (which is to say, you are) you are welcome to join our table no matter where, so we may hoist a glass of good cheer to you and yours. So to begin. . .

First, thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read and respond to our blog in 2007. This is more than I expected. Frankly, I’m delighted that anyone is reading our musings, observations, and scribblings at all–let alone responding with ideas and good-natured clarifications.

This year we have enjoyed more great coffee than ever before. I say this with all the seriousness my holiday condition will allow. For this, our Slayer thanks go out to Russ at Fratello for his magnificent Bolivian varietals and his ongoing worldwide search for outrageously great coffee, to Duane at Stumptown for his crazy Ethiopian Biloya (and the Wondo Coop), and to David at Vivace for the great good sense of having Brian on staff, and (oh, yeah) for his espresso Americanos, which I can’t stop talking about. Also, thanks to our friends, the staff at Fiore in Ballard, who have poured such gorgeous latte art for us over this past year and entertained us with such lively vignettes and good-natured cheekiness.

This past year has given all of us at Slayer the opportunity to learn new tricks around getting more out of the coffee. In 2007, we spent considerable time investigating the concept of “brew pressure profiling”. This is the rather vaulted term given to the idea of deliberately controlling brew pressure during the espresso shot extraction. Our work has taken us to study a number of systems and methodologies for doing this–Jason’s earlier discussion around lever devices reveals an older technology we found interesting and relevant. We have also cued off some of the work shared with us by companies like Gicar, Procon, and Fluid-o-Tec. However, over all we have found most approaches too complex and robotic.

Reflecting on what “robotic” means exactly, I recall the development of the Treuh espresso machine (now Synesso). Our design brief for the Treuh was a reaction to a dangerous trend we were seeing in the industry. Espresso machines were becoming glorified food processors for coffee. The espresso “systems” in development at that time were getting away from the simplicity, and elegance that all great food arises from, getting away from accentuating the hands on engagement of the chef or in the case of coffee the barista–the skill and judgement a real human being brings to food. With the espresso machines emerging at that time, even traditionals, the industry was at serious risk of literally losing touch.

It seems obvious now, that espresso machines placed on the front bar of a Third Wave cafe, or any specialty coffee cafe for that matter, should not be food processors–but my feeling in 2003 was that things were heading in the wrong direction. A few years prior to developing our machine, Starbucks had pulled almost six thousand La Marzoccos from their stores and replaced them with super automatics. In this sense, Treuh was a technical development, and a labor of love, that attempted to reclaim espresso preparation for people–and to highlight the benefit that a great barista can bring to this Art form. But so much more work was left to be done . . .

Today, the motley crew at Slayer builds on this exact same philosophical viewpoint. Coffee is organic, and it’s preparation is a ritual, a form of fine cuisine. This outlook has pushed us to engineer and develop not just a particular approach to the technology and mechanism for pressure profiling. It has led us to explore with our sense of taste, our palettes, exactly what happens to the flavor of coffee when brew pressure is increased or decreased during shot extraction. . . This is where a lot of the excitement is–figuring out what happens when pressure is changed at different points during extraction for different coffees. There is no orthodoxy or conventional wisdom here. Our tongues and taste lead our exploration–and help us determine where more empirical methods should be applied. What we have learned is that the potential is there for improving espresso. When pressure is controlled dynamically, with the same rigor that PID brings to brew temperature stability, a wonderful new dimension of espresso extraction is revealed.

This work has opened up coffee to us in a totally new way. And we have been like madmen on a desert island with these discoveries. In 2008, we will refine our discoveries so we can bring this work forward out of our studio in a more practical form. God willing, in 2008, we will present techniques and technology that will be useful and accessible to Third Wavers and coffee aficionados alike, so this work can expand beyond us and benefit everyone who enjoys great espresso.

Happy Holidays!

Eric Perkunder