Lessons in Empiricism from making espresso

Empiricism Sep 23, 2019

Lessons in Empiricism from making espresso

Around 6 years ago I bought my first semi-automic espresso machine. The idea of being able to make a perfect cappuccino, which uses espresso as the foundation, sounded very appealing to me.

I had zero experience in making espresso. My journey to become an amateur barista helped me better understand the importance of empiricism, which forms the foundation of Scrum.

I hope by sharing my story it will help you better understand empiricism as well.

Pulling a great espresso shot is difficult

After my espresso machine arrived, I practiced making espresso every day. My first espressos tasted horrible. I still feel embarrassed thinking I served those to guests. After a couple of weeks putting in a lot of effort and wasting a lot of coffee beans to make espresso, I noticed I was not getting any better at it.

I was becoming frustrated and buyers remorse started to kick in. Making a cappuccino is not as easy as it seems. I was not even able to get the espresso right. I also had no clue how to improve my performance.

Making espresso is hard. What exactly makes it difficult?

Why is making espresso difficult?

Making an espresso is difficult because there are many variables you need to control to pull a good shot (list is not even exhaustive):

  • Amount of coffee
  • Coffee grind
  • Coffee freshness
  • Tamping pressure
  • Water temperature
  • Pressure

Screw one of these variables up a little bit and you end up with a bad espresso. I also had no idea what a good espresso looked like. I just knew my espressos tasted terrible.

You cannot learn how to make an espresso if you have no idea if you are on the right track. The transparency provided by an empirical approach is essential.

Without empiricism you are doing without learning. With empiricism you can learn by doing, as you are able to inspect the result of your performance and adapt.

Transparency —the crema of an espresso

I started reading some books and articles about making espresso to learn more. I discovered a whole science behind making espresso I was unaware of. I stumbled upon the concept of crema, which provides transparency on the performance of my espresso shots that I sorely needed.

A freshly pulled shot of espresso should have a layer of crema. Crema is the tan-colored foam that rests on top of the espresso. By judging the crema*, you can tell if the espresso shot you pulled is any good.

*an espresso with a great crema can still taste poor. The crema tells you are on the right track, but you may need to tweak it further to get a great taste. Some espresso fanatics claim crema does not matter, but for the purpose of this article we will just conveniently ignore them for now.

Espresso crema

Inspection— judging the crema of your espresso

Before you can inspect the crema of your espresso, you need to have a notion of what good crema looks like. Here’s what good espresso crema looks like:

Great crema has a dark-brown to hazel-brown color and contains tiny bubbles. When the crema of your espresso is poor it falls in one of three broad categories: no crema at all, a crema which is too light or a crema which is too dark.

By knowing what good crema should look like, you can categorize your espresso crema. By evaluating the crema you can assess the quality of the espresso shot you pulled.

Adaptation — troubleshooting your espresso to nail the crema

You can troubleshoot the three categories of inadequate crema as follows:

  1. No crema. Old coffee, too low pressure or too little coffee.

2. Light crema. Temperature too low, too little coffee, too old coffee or too coarse grind.

3. Dark crema. Temperature too high, too much coffee or too fine grind.

By adapting the different variables that influence the espresso shot, such as temperature, amount of coffee, coffee grind and tamping pressure, you can learn how to obtain a delicious crema.

I can say after six years of making espresso I still sometimes pull a bad shot. I also would like to believe I am still getting better at it. Knowing how to pull a great shot is not enough. You need to translate your knowledge to precise manual actions and quantities to obtain the desired result.

Without empiricism, you can’t pull a good shot of espresso

Learning how to make an espresso underlines the importance of empricism. Without an idea of what good espresso looks or tastes like, you can’t pull a good shot of espresso. You will stumble around like a drunkard in a random walk with a low chance of success.

In Scrum, Empiricism asserts that knowledges comes from experience and making decisions based on what is known. Empiricism means learning by doing and reflecting on your experience.

You can’t learn to pull a perfect shot of espresso just by reading a book. You need to put this knowledge into action. By doing you learn the exact movements and steps that are necessary to pull a good shot of espresso.

The three pillars of empiricism are:

  • Transparency. A common standard must be defined so observers share common understanding about what is being seen.
  • Inspection. Judging what is produced based on a common standard so the producing process may be evaluated.
  • Adaptation. Making changes to the producing process to improve what is produced.

An empirical approach provides light in darkness. By defining a common standard, in the case of espresso the crema, you can figure out how you are performing and adjust your course to achieve success.