2 Espresso Blends?/Problems with taste, crema color

After two years of working with Kaldi's Coffee in St. Louis, I've moved to Kansas and found myself at a new little shop that roasts it's own beans. At Kaldi's, I feel I was fairly well trained and taught the "correct" methods (if they exist) of approaching coffee.

This new shop is challenging everything I've learned, and forcing me to prove why the methods I was taught were correct (which, in turn, is helping me learn even more). I won't go into all the details of how differently the new shop does things (it would make this a very, very long post), but there are two aspects that I hoped y'all smart folk could help me with.

Issue 1: Two Espresso Blends
Basically every coffee shop I've ever been to has had two grinders and two blends for espresso - their decaf blend and their regular espresso blend.
This new shop has three - a blend for milk-based drink, a blend for straight espresso and americanos, and a decaf blend.

The owner claims that the straight espresso blend is "sweeter", while the blend for milk "has more punch to push through the milk" - which leads me to another issue, the shop puts only one shot in 12 oz drinks, and two shots for 16 and 20oz drinks (which, I assume, is why he feels he has to "punch through"... there's not enough espresso).

Has anyone ever heard of anything like this? I tend to believe that good espresso is good espresso, and doesn't need to be modified for the drink. I suspect that the milk espresso is cheaper. But maybe he's on to something?

Aaaaand Issue 2: The 'spro don't taste good!

Beyond that no matter what I do, neither blend tastes very good to me - both have that over-extracted astringent taste, even when I pull them super-ristretto. There is no sweetness in either. Both tend to be pretty thin, and the color of the crema is always a very light brown, pretty much blond from the start - none of the nice amber reddish brown I'm used to with Kaldi's espresso blend.

I have gathered a list of possible suspects to that problem:
-boiler temperature is not high enough (I don't know much about this one)
-pressure is not high enough (it frequently only hits 8 bars of pressure, not 9)
-the burr grinders are dull (He says they're old and it takes forever to grind enough for a shot, so I'm pretty sure of this one)
-we need to create a new espresso blend altogether.

Anyone have any suggestions I might be missing? It's difficult to have a new job at a shop and discover all these problems, and I'm trying to be very delicate in bringing them up as as not to piss him off. I want to gather as much information as possible before I say anything. Thanks!

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Try testing the temperature of the water flowing from your group head. It should be in the 92C range but my guess is that yours could be lower than that if the machine has a build up within the heat exchangers. If it gets down to the high 70C or low 80C range your espresso is certainly going to suffer badly.

You've obviously got serious grinder problems. The machine will last for years; the burrs won't.

Eight Bar is low, but you're indicator could also be out. Honestly thought, I wonder if you have a burned out heating element. Often they are in two, three, four or more coils and keep working, sort of, when in bad shape. They can burn out because of a low water level...so check that too. The heat exchangers should be half covered.

As for the doses...they sound a bit short. A twenty ounce drink should probably have three shots. I can't think of any latte having one shot.

As for the two blend idea: That's a great idea. If you have clients who like sweet drinks and others who love simple espressos and cappaccinos you can get the best of both worlds by offering a selection of espresso choices. A dark smoky roast may not work well as espresso, but it often works well in sweet drinks.

Myself, I don't happen to like sweet drinks or dark espresso.
As for the two espresso blends, we kicked that idea around a while ago, then we decided to go with a great versatile blend in grinder 1 and a rotating single origin in grinder 2 then the decaf in number 3. My question to him would be "how different do they actually taste?" if they were to be pulled properly, which brings us to your larger issue.

Burrs are such a simple fix that gets overlook way to often. New burrs, which is probably one of a number of issues you are having, can change the world for a lot of shops. So yea, burrs are a good place to start.

Also, another super simple thing that can get overlooked. You said they roast their own beans, one issue I have seen with places around here that roast their own is that they use the coffee way too soon off of roast, like a day sometimes less (yikes). Check the rest times he has before the beans are going in the grinder. Without time to "gas off" you can get some strange flavors off of espressos, you can usually taste a bright kind of gassiness. I would say, if this is the situation, ask him to try an espresso 4 days off roast, and then again at like 6 or 7 days off, see how it develops.

Hope that helps.
Another culprit here could be the roast or old green beans. I work at a shop that roasts their own beans and unfortunately some bad overroasts still get in the hopper(owner is unwilling to throw it away). Even when being used between 4 and 10 days, when the coffee gets over roasted it can dramatically affect the extraction of the shot because of solubles turning into carbon. The owner is also bad about ordering/roasting things off before they get too old (sometimes sitting green for 2 or 3 years). Old green beans can disastrously affect extraction.

That being said, judgement of the beans shouldn't be made until they are used on properly working equipment(if they don't fix the equipment at the shop and you have such access, it might be helpful to test the espresso at another shop with working equipment so you can rule out the beans as the source of the problem)
Unfortunately for you, it is not your place, as an employee, to make the kinds of decisions you need to make to turn this coffee shop into your vision of a good coffee shop. The shop already has an owner who has implemented their vision, and it sounds like he has his reasons for doing things into which he has already put a lot of thought. The fact that you hold another view of how a quality shop operates is neither here nor there.

Imagine if it was your shop and your vision. You hire some young gun who claims certain things should be a certain way. You would expect him to explain his position just as you have had to explain yours. If the boss says the coffee quality is the way he wants it, you will just be spinning your wheels trying to convince him otherwise. If he does not come to the same conclusion as you on his own, it is wasted effort on your part.

Employers (sometimes) spend a lot of time and effort interviewing potential employees to get a certain work ethic and maintain certain standards. Seldom do the Baristas interview the potential employer to make certain that they will be a good philosophical and personal fit. The next time you look for a job, have a list ready for the part of the interview where the boss says "do you have any questions for me?". Don't be afraid to interview the interviewer.

Who knows, you may be in the position, sooner or later, to put your own business model out there for public scrutiny. If you do, I wish you the best of luck.

Oh, and yes, there are blends that do much better as shots, and other that are great in milk. Usually coffee shops have to come to some kind of compromise on both ends to use only one regular espresso blend.
What up!?! I hope you got good training at Kaldi's!! If they want you to prove why Kaldi's trains the way we do, cite the SCAA. We use tried and true brewing standards and training. As for the shop you are working with, you should probably try some different shops around KC. There are some really good ones. Call down to the Kaldi's roaster and we'll give you some good direction on who to hook up with over there.

PS... Lots of love...
Hows your water quality?

When was the last time the filters were changed and the water softener recharged?

What's your dose?

How many days off roast are you using the beans?

How old is "old" in reference to the burrs. What kind of grinders are you using? Flat burr or conical and how big are the burrs, that's a great indicator of how often to change them.

Grinding per shot? I would sure hope so.

Have you tried cupping the coffee vs. just brewing it as espresso? If it is good coffee, it should taste good outside of the espresso machine. Even if it's ideal is in the PF, it should still taste great as a FP or when being cupped.

Yeah, this is a tricky spot. There is so much variety in this industry, so many different ways to do things. Your best bet is to probably start with the more equipment-related issues - like new burrs and verifying pressure/temp. This could be accomplished in a quick visit by your tech if you can't do it yourself. Many owners would like to think that they are taking care of their stuff and if they can be shown the light these problems are an easy fix.

"This is the way we did it at Kaldis" is gonna get really old to your new boss if it hasn't already. I don't care how good their training is. Try to separate the philosophical approach differences from the execution differences, and stick to the latter. Having two blends is not unheard of, and shows that this owner cares about what you serve. Focus on making those two espressos shine and go from there.
It could be the coffee. But I would also check the water for off tastes and is it run through a water softer. Espresso and coffee need minerals in the water to bond to or the coffee comes out tasting very flat. Also check your grind setting, pull time 15 to 20 seconds and water temperature 195. If the burr grinder blades are dull you could be burning the coffee during grinding.

Yes there are many types of espresso blends. Some have a hard edge for mixed drinks so you can taste the espresso when mixed with milk. Some are velvet smooth for straight shots.

If you you think the coffee is bad order a pound coffee from an artisan roaster online. That has good reviews and compare them to what you got. Hope this helped.
Thanks for all the help guys!

First off, I haven't discussed any of this with the owner yet, and don't intend to say anything for a good while (especially while I'm not certain what the issues really are). He's acknowledged that there are things that need to be improved himself (such as the burrs), and that I am coming from a perspective that could help the store a lot. So far, we've both been very pleasantly open to each others differing opinions. He has granted me my methods of tamping, acknowledged that I understand milk frothing and don't have to use the thermometers (as the other employees generally do), and don't have to use the volumetrics on the linea. At the same time, I have promised to dose and level in the way that he wants (though it is not how I was taught before).

When he's asked for my opinion on things, I have been blunt and honest, but also invited him to call me an uppity punk kid at any time and ignore what I'm saying - he's the boss.

I don't have an issue with there being two espressos, I just wanted to know if it was done elsewhere - I'm pleased to see it is, it's a cool idea. But when neither tastes good, I do want to investigate as to why. Like I said, when our views do collide, I'm having to prove my perspective with better results or scientific reasoning - I would find it rather obnoxious myself if my only reasoning was "this is the way we did it at kaldi's". So far discussing the few things that I have with him as been very enjoyable - I give the reasons for my approach, and he gives the reasons for his, and we discuss.

So, the discussion of "where my place is" aside, back to the espresso.
I don't know much about the machines and I've gotten the impression from co-workers that when maintenance guys have come, they didn't really do much and the machine didn't get any better. I'll find out how long the green beans are being kept, but considering there's really not much room to keep them, I can't imagine it being very long. The espresso is allowed to de-gas for about 4 days, so I don't think that's the culprit.

I think the first step is to replace the burrs, as that is an issue whether it's causing the problem or not. Then I'll check the machine's water temperature and levels. I'm not sure how to adjust those things so I'll have to do some research. I'll ask about the water too.

After that I'll begin checking out the actual blend more.

PS, Joe! Always good to run across Kaldi's folk in here - will you be at MWRBC? I'm going to try and make it out there. Take care!
I will be at and competing in the MWRBC. I'd love to see you. There may be some competitors from Latte Land and I know some of the PT's crew will be competing. You could probably car pool with some of them! If you need any more input on your question, I'd love to help out. joem@kaldiscoffee.com
I'd still be interested to know what temperature you're getting from the group heads. I'm not working there, so I can't possibly know; but, often in places where they "don't get around" to replacing grinder burrs, they also don't get around to general machine inspections. Espresso machines will still function when there are a lot of things not working properly. That says a lot about how well made they are.
I'm just getting into roasting but I definitely agree about the sweeter is better as a stand alone theory. The bitter stronger maybe a way to use cheaper beans but it might be his honest opinion, but I think that if nothing else, he's going with a lot of the theories I'm seeing on the net. Crema's another debate. I don't really participate in the arguments, and figure that there's probably a coffee for everybody but thought I'd give you a sanity check there. Let me know and I'll send a few links if you want further reading.

Sounds like the feller is just imitating other coffee shops rather than following his passion. I have seen a lot of this. It's too bad really but it might be time to search the classifieds for the next great job.

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