Serious Eats: Drinks
Baristas Test The Slayer, the New $18,000 Espresso Machine
Note: Please welcome our new coffee columnist Erin Hulbert, a New York-based barista originally from the coffee homeland of Seattle. Every Thursday morning she will be checking in here to let us know what's on her (caffeinated) mind. Take it away, Erin! —The Mgmt.
As a fulltime barista for well over a decade, working with various reputable roasters, cafes, and on countless machines, I can honestly say that the moment Slayer hit the market, fourth wave coffee arrived. This beautiful machine with its majestic wooden accents are reminiscent of Seattle's boating industry and was best described by David Schomer, the owner of Seattle-based coffee shop and roaster Espresso Vivace: "The action and wooden paddles give the feel of being at the helm of a fine yacht" (a yacht so fine, fewer than 20 of them exist at coffee shops).
Most baristas (myself included) are working diligently within the realm of third wave coffee, paying close attention to dosing, distribution, tamp, temp, cleanliness, and of course grind. As extraction occurs, we look for flow rate, color, and appropriate volume within approximately a 25-second period. These third wave rudiments are still present in fourth wave extraction, though are allowing the barista to enhance or manipulate flavor profiles, creating an entirely new experience.
Cora Lambert, the director of coffee for New York-based RBC (where one of these fancy machines sits) was kind enough to invite me behind the counter to better acquaint myself with The Slayer.
Upon first gaze, the design alone is mesmerizing. The ergonomics of the machine, reminiscent of the Synesso, provide smooth movements much easier for your body to withstand. The short height of the machine (17 inches) allows ample visibility for the barista and client to connect, creating better relationships. Most ingenious is the thin mirror angled along the grate, giving the barista a perfect view of their shots without moving an inch.
Now that The Slayer and I shook hands and formed our first impressions, I was dying to know more.
As I watched Lambert dose, distribute, tamp, and load the portafilter into the group head, she explained that the machine was equipped with not two, but five boilers all with individual temp control devices, one for each group and two for the steam wands. She then slid the wooden paddle to the left activating the pre-brew, also called pre-infusion, a blooming process for the espresso.
After about 20 seconds of watching the pressure gauge reach approximately four bars she then slid the paddle all the way to the left, or what I like to call at full mast. A succulent reddish-brown syrup started to appear. Its viscosity slowly increased and eventually introduced a blond shade which Lambert noticed and decided to slide the paddle back to the previous setting, what I like to call half-mast, decreasing the pressure to subdue any sour flavors.
Slayer creator Eric Perkunder explains,"if a coffee is too bright you can reduce the effect by moving back to lower pressure at the end of the shot. " Lambert then halted the extraction at what was clocked at around 50 seconds.
These movements—adjusting the pressure to enhance or subdue specific flavors—are all done manually by the barista. A level of skill is mandatory to understand the subtle nuances of what you are striving for in a flavor profile. But Perkunder's concept of The Slayer lies in the barista's control of the pre-brew.
"The idea and experience that espresso shot flavor benefits from the analog quality of saturation brewing (like a French Press) is the theory behind the machine. That being said the control of this functionality, the timing, the adjusting during the shot, etc is the baristas alone," he said.
Lambert pulled shot after shot of a Single Origin Ethiopian from Dallis Coffee Roasters located in Queens. "Here, taste this," she would say, noticeably amped by her caffeine intake for the day.
The shots themselves tasted full, with delicate accents of deep berry, dark chocolate, and some lemon peel. Each one slightly different, like espresso snowflakes gently falling over my tongue.
Her intense involvement in each shot—when to pull back and when to push onward—was now clear upon tasting. I would watch her intently and think "nice move" as if she was playing chess against a master.
The power of the barista and the industry's new potential growth is endless with this machine. As a final drink, Cora made her special Vietnamese Coffee, a lightly sweetened macchiato perfectly adorned with a velvety circle of creamy microfoam: a perfect end to an exhilarating voyage.