Dial-in dilemma

Each morning I spend on bar begins in a fairly familiar way - dialling in.

Dialling in?

If you're a regular at your local specialty coffee shop, you might have heard the term "dial in", but what does that mean? Before we get any further let me lay out a brief definition.

Dialling in is the process of finding a suitable recipe for the coffee being served as espresso in a coffee shop, (though we can also "dial in" recipes for filter coffee).

Typically this recipe will contain the following information:

  • Dose (the weight of ground coffee used, measured in grams)
  • Contact time (the time, measured in seconds, that the shot "runs" for - i.e. how much time water is pumped through the coffee puck in the espresso machine)
  • Yield (the amount of coffee "in the cup", measured in grams)

Other variables are important, but this level of detail should provide sufficient information for this article.

When a barista dials in, they are typically seeking a well balanced espresso. This balance is between sweetness, bitterness and acidity. The espresso must have body which is suitable for that coffee, meaning that the tactile feeling in the mouth must correlate well to the taste balance and flavour notes of that coffee. It should also sit well in milk, if that's a factor

Any competent barista should be able to quickly dial in a good espresso, using the variables mentioned above, to ensure that they're producing something suitable.

Good morning

Arriving at the shop half an hour before we open, I have to brew 2 pots of filter coffee, store a load of milk in the fridge, make sure everything is well stocked, and dial in 2 espresso recipes, (house and guest - typically I'll dial in decaf later in the day). The standard we set for espresso in our shop is 3/6 on an WBC sensory score sheet, meaning "Good".

All these activities should be achievable by an experienced barista who is familiar with the shop.

Generally, we use a blend as our house espresso. It is fairly consistent, making it fairly straightforward to dial in a recipe achieving the prescribed quality, as we should be familiar with what works from the day before.

On the other hand, I try to keep our guest changing every couple of days, which means there's a bit more work involved getting it where we want it. Instead of coming in, pulling yesterday's recipe, and making a tweak or two, it could take 3 or 4 attempts to get it into a workable range.

At that point, we should be at (or very near) a three.

The coffees we have can offer so much more though, and I like to push them as much as I can.

What dilemma?

This is where the dilemma kicks in.

At this point, we typically have around 5 minutes until the doors open. I know that I can keep making adjustments during the day, and that this last 5 minutes free of customers would be well used making sure everything else is in order before the day begins.

But I also know that at that point-  when I don't have orders to see to, lunch breaks to manage, grinders to clean, customers to chat to, or spillages to mop up - that last 5 minutes is probably the best time to make those last little changes that mean I'm serving my customers exceptional drinks, not just acceptable ones.

With a clear head, and with no distractions, and before the morning rush begins - that's my window of opportunity. Do I use it to make my life easier? Or, do I push the recipe to provide an even tastier beverage?

Reality

This is, I suppose, the reality of many coffee businesses. Often business needs outweigh the aspirational goals of the business. 

Indeed, this issue, which may seem trivial to some, was brought into focus by the time I spent with my competition coffee - a natural Rwandan roasted by Colonna. I was able to spend hours getting to know how the coffee performed, without the pressure of a growing queue, or any of the issues that can create.

That's the kind of relationship I'd love to have with every coffee we serve, but time doesn't always allow for that.

However, when it comes to my morning dial in - most days I choose to take those extra 5 minutes to make sure our espresso is as tasty as it can be - after all, it's what I'll be drinking all day ;)


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