The Tao of the Barefoot Journey: “The Tao of Espresso” by Mr. Kyle Abbot

My dad spent most of his young life traveling abroad. First to Australia, then many years in South East Asia, followed by Sweden, Japan, and finally settling in the most bizarre, strangest region – Santa Cruz, CA. Anyway, in his travels, he picked up the philosophy of Taoism, which I feel is a way to look “below the surface”, to understand human nature.

My brother and I were raised with a Taoist way of thinking, and learned to read with the Tao Te Ching (google it)… as well as the Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss, of course.


So moving along. Though the author of the Tao Te Ching is “Lao Tsu” (which simply means “Old Man”), it’s suspected that is a pen name for a person named Chuang Tsu (369BC – 286BC) Chuang Tsu wrote many stories, one of which made me realize that espresso is a very Taoisty drink! How? Read on! 🙂

Before getting the Mazzer (which was basically the key to starting the car… of my adventure), I did lots of research on standard guides and rules to making good espresso: A 25 second extraction equals “espresso bliss”, for example. In terms of getting the fundamentals down, I feel good about having done the homework. Once I got the Mazzer, knowing the affects of bean freshness, water temperature and tamping was like basic troubleshooting to keep me from pulling 1oz of diarrhea in the cup.

As I start to discover things that guide me closer to better shots, I realize that the guidelines do help for making a consistent shot, but the skill needed for God Shots are subtle technique which are almost impossible to explain, and must be felt from within.

This became clear when I was with James at Companion on Sunday. I tamped and pulled a shot on the beautiful Synesso. I will humbly admit, it was pretty good. Ten seconds later, James walks up and makes another shot with the same amount of coffee in the portafilter, and outwardly using the same technique as I did. With one sip, you could tell that his shot was at least 2X better, maybe even 5X+ better. I mean, if someone told me it was cologne, I would have believed it and drunk it anyway.

I was about to ask him how he did it, but I realized how pointless it would be to even ask, as I was right behind him as he made the entire shot. Just then, this story from Chuang Tsu came to my mind.

Chuang Tzu Story – Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright

Duke Hwan of Khi sat under his canopy reading, and Phien the Wheelwright was in the yard making a wheel. Phien stopped working to ask Duke Hwan, “May I ask you, Lord,
what you are reading?”

Said the duke: “The experts, the authorities.” Phien asked: “Alive or dead?” The duke said: “Dead, a long time.” The wheelwright replied,
“Then, you are only reading the dirt they left behind.”

The duke replied, “What do you know about it? You are only a wheelwright. You had better give me a good explanation or else you must die.”

The wheelwright thought about it, and finally said,
“Let’s look my point of view. When I make wheels, if I go easy they fall apart, and if I am too rough they don’t fit. But if I am neither too easy nor too violent, they come out right, and the work is what I want it to be. You cannot put this in words, you just have to know how it is. I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done, and my own son cannot learn it from me. The men of old took all they really knew with them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there is only the dirt they left behind them.”

Over years of building shamisen, I have noticed story relate in my life more and more – the skill that can’t be conveyed. Indeed, making shamisen is a lot like making espresso. The factors affecting the outcome are similar – What kind of wood is used, kind of tools used, sharpness/strength of tools, and the craftsman’s own attention/patience. Similar factors that go into pulling a quality shot of espresso, is it not? Of course, it’s taken me years to realize this because there are several hundred steps in making a shamisen. The process is so long and intensive that to an observer, making even a low quality shamisen seems impossible. Thus, the affect of internalized skill is almost impossible to notice without training.

On the other hand, espresso is like the pinnacle of this story. Four steps. Grind, tamp, flush, pull. All in under a minute. Easy enough right? What’s keeping me from pulling a God Shot? The countless number of unconscious steps being executed within the wrist (for tamping), as well as the mind.

For those inclined, check out my Dad’s site,

Espresso is, in many ways, an art that cannot be taught but something that must be felt. This is something I noticed while I was being trained, ever present as I continue to learn every day, and at the back of my mind whenever I am training new people. There is an energy, a “気 (ki)” to the techniques and a mindset one falls into after enough practice. A slight angle of the wrist, minute amounts of extra pressure while tamping, a certain degree of rotation on the “shine,” or maybe just a different attitude entirely. There are things we do without thinking; our hands move naturally as if they are possessed to self correct and maintain methodology, our voice reverberates with a bravado that reflects our love and belief in the process, and a perspective that syncs our entire bodies to our eyes and mind, binding everything and guiding us to create masterful works. Kyle is well on his way to understanding that which cannot be taught, only that which is acquired through experience. Some people never get there, some people do not care. For those that labor, including myself, we hope to aspire to that intangibly tangible level of excellence. The difference in skill between two baristas can be extremely clear; with so little changing between our (Kyle’s and mine) techniques (2-5%) it is hard to believe the divergence in quality. But, it’s there. I too am aspiring to perfect a “god shot” and be able to embody the mantle of “skilled” barista, but I too have a long way to go.    ~ James 


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