The 4 M's of Coffee (espresso)

Before jumping into the buying or decision making process of purchasing coffee equipment, I wanted to elaborate on the 4M’s mentioned in the first article and explain why each are important, and what impact they have on your coffee experience.  The 4M’s, although typically in reference to espresso, are the pillars if you will, or parts that add up to be the finished beverage.  This might not be the article for the TL:DR crowd, but I know I like to know why I’m doing something or what effect it has to further my understanding of the process as a whole.

Miscela, or the mixture is the first “M”, referring to the coffee that is used.  You have to use good coffee to make good coffee, plain and simple.  You can have the fanciest, most expensive equipment in the world, but if you don’t use quality coffee, it’s not going to improve where you start.  When I say “good coffee” I’m referring to quality sourced, properly roasted, fresh coffee.  It might be easier if you think of the coffee as being as good as it ever can be while it’s still on the tree, it’s up to us not to diminish its qualities throughout the process of harvesting, roasting, and preparing the coffee.  If the coffee is not grown in a good climate suited to that coffee, is not properly tended to, etc., what ends up in your cup will only ever be as good as what is sourced.  From there, it’s up to the harvester and processer to get it off the tree and to your roaster.  (There’s a lot more to it than that, but you get the idea.)  The roaster then needs to roast the coffee in a manner that highlights the coffee’s inherent characteristics and desirable qualities.  Assuming all this is done, then it’s up to you to purchase and use coffee that is between 3 and 14-18 days post roast.  If the coffee does not have a roast on date, but rather a “best by” date and there isn’t a way to tell when it was roasted, walk away, it’s probably already stale.  There is an optimum window on when to use the coffee, which is dictated by the coffee itself, as some varietals require more “rest” after roast than others.  Coffee can also be used too soon after it was roasted, in which the flavors typically will not be as pronounced or the coffee might not be as balanced as it could be with more rest.  Usually, most coffees will “peak” between 7-10 days post roast, with your general usable window being between 3 and 15 days post roast. 

Macinacaffe, the coffee grinder is the most important piece of physical equipment in the process that will have the greatest influence on the outcome or potential of the coffee itself.  It’s only sexy to those in the know, and even then, it’s still more fun to talk about the bells and whistles of the machines themselves.  A quality grinder is important because it will control both grind size and (more importantly) grind uniformity.  Inconsistent particle size will lead to inconsistencies in extraction of the coffee.  The fines or smallest particles will end up being over extracted and the larger particles or boulders will be underextracted making it sheer luck to achieve a desired extraction level, and good cup.  Blade grinders have no control over how the coffee is ground, none.  A burr grinder “pulverizes” the coffee into evenly sized particles, or at least that’s the idea.  Some methods of brewing (and some coffees) are must more forgiving of grind inconsistencies, but in the case of espresso the errors will be amplified.  Also in the case of espresso, it is often the case that more entry level grinders are simply not capable of grinding fine enough for espresso, or lack the adjustment to dial in an espresso extraction with too great of a delta between grind settings.  Grinders are so important an entire post will follow soon more thoroughly breaking down the different types and what that means for you. 

I am also going to add a scale to this category simply because like a grinder, a scale can make huge improvements to coffee at all levels, and without it a fancy machine will not make up for dosing errors.  A digital gram weight scale, preferably one with .1g resolution, is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve the quality of your coffee.  With so many variables in preparing coffee; amount of coffee, amount of water, grind size, water temp, time, etc., a scale eliminates two of those variables right off the bat, and provides information as how to adjust two more.  By controlling the brew ratio, or amount of coffee to the amount of water, you can control how much your coffee is extracted and adjust that ratio to improve taste.  The observed results once you know the brewing information can also help dictate or provide information as to adjusting grind size, or time.  If the finished beverage is say bland or weak, but balanced, and the extraction times and brew ratios were followed, you can then experiment with increasing the dose (or decreasing the water) to pronounce the flavor more.  If the coffee is pouring through too quickly given certain brew ratio guidelines, you know you need to adjust the grind finer.  With so many moving targets (variables) in coffee, having a scale lets you control a few of those which can better point you in the right direction should you want to or need to change one of the variable. 

Macchina is the sex appeal.  The machine making your coffee gets most of the attention and credit since it is actually making it.  The machine is extremely important, but everything done up until you get to the machine cannot be stressed enough; you have to start with good coffee, good water, proper grinding, and know how much coffee and water you are using to let the machine do its work and make the best coffee it can.  It’s where the rubber meets the road, and quality equipment or machines will help with things like temperature regulation, extraction, or what kind of qualities you are looking for in your coffee.  In the case of espresso, you really do get what you pay for well into the price spectrum.  The “better” espresso machines will provide a greater degree of forgiveness by providing greater temperature stability, more consistency, steam power, ease of use, etc.  It is possible to make great espresso on the entry level espresso machines, it just requires a little more work (and patience).  I will cover various “machines” or devices needed for all brewing methods and their pros and cons as well as many, many espresso machines at length.

Mano:  this is you!  Honing your skills as a “barista” will allow you to call on the full potential of the coffee and make the best cup you can.  I will teach you how to use everything associated with the previous three M’s and more importantly, understand what it is that you’re doing and how to interpret the results.  This will allow you to asses and know which of the many variables need to be adjusted to improve or modify your results.