Tassia Pellegrini

March 26, 2021

Sometimes microscopic adjustments are all you need

Almost three years ago, I got an espresso machine. I knew I was going on a rabbit hole of coffee making, and that felt attractive. To make things worse (?), I decided to get an old-school La Pavoni where pretty much modern espresso laws barely apply.

None of that made my life more convenient, and your early days with espresso — especially if you're new to the subject — can be very frustrating.

If anything, owning a La Pavoni has tested my patience with myself, which I'm grateful for. 

And that also taught me about very small, isolated adjustments. 

In case you're not into coffee or espresso, I will summarise: dialing-in a shot that doesn't taste like crap (which is also subjective) involves many variables, including, but not limited to, grind size, dosage, pressure, water temperature — and water quality —, coffee bed evenness and preparation, time (mainly as a tracking variable, let's say), etc. 

So next time you go to a café and order an espresso (or an espresso-milk drink, such as a latte or cappuccino), consider how skilled that barista is.

Of course, I'm no barista. I make way less coffee; I have no formal training, and I know way less about coffee theory than them. 

And that's why it took me a little longer to get comfortable making tiny and isolated adjustments to these variables instead of bigger jumps: by being an impatient rookie, I was trying to make a recipe without understanding the ingredients and the moving parts beforehand. (That might not always be true for water temperature, or if for whatever reason the whole dial-in is entirely off; then you might benefit from bigger jumps depending on the roast level, machine temperature management, grinder type... but please bear with my analogy here — that's the point!)

With that "putting the basics together without knowing the basics individually" sometimes worked, sometimes not. So ultimately, I wanted to be more consistent. And when I started learning variable by variable, my process and results became worse before becoming better.

Removing guessing and luck from my routine forced me to be more conscious, and being aware of what I didn't know I didn't know was awkward and frustrating. But I pushed through it, and things started making sense — many ah-ha! moments — and results were getting better. And more repeatable. And more adjusted to my taste and my equipment. 

I'm definitely still "not there", you should see my abstract latte art. But everything is tastier, more enjoyable to make, and it just feels good to be more... aware, simply by being more patient.

And for me, and I imagine for many folks in 2020 and 2021, themes such as patience, going back to basics, and being more intentional are very strong.

Combined, they're the path to mastery. And although it can be very fulfilling, it's hard. It tests us a lot.

So, I've been trying to embody my learnings in my espresso adventures in my life by revisiting the basics and honoring them, being patient with the process of deconstruction and reconstruction, and being intentional where my energy and time goes. 

I feel like this brings the same joyful feeling as tasting that espresso shot in the morning after getting to know it a little better. Sweet.