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What they don't tell you...

September 22, 2011


I've been brewing espresso seriously for about a year.  This means that all of the trials and tribulations of the art form are still fresh on my mind.  I thought I'd share some of the lesser known ones that I kinda wish someone had told me about, though not all of them.  It could have saved me a lot of time.



First, dialing in a grinder takes a lot of time.  Perhaps it takes more time depending on how exacting you are with your shots.  If you go by the standard, you should be taking somewhere between 24-30 seconds with a lot of 'tiger striping,' which results in flecked crema.  There are a lot of grinding variables to account for, like the variance between steps (or knob/collar turns), clumping, and dosing, to name a few.  Combine this with the rest of the espresso experience (tamping, flushing, preinfusion, etc...), and it takes FOREVER.  The only way it gets better is when you've finally settled on a grinder, knowing you're going to use for a while, and finding that sweet spot where only a few clicks or turns will get you at the proper setting.  My advice to newbies is to find this range and make a note of it.  It will save you many pounds of coffee.



Second, the portafilter needs a lot of love.  This contraption needs to be caressed and told it is the 'one.'  Seriously, though, there's a lot of maintenance and prep-work that goes into making espresso and a lot of it is centered on the portafilter.  Your portafilter needs to be hot, and I repeat, HOT, to make an adequate shot.  The holes of your filter basket expand and allow very fine amounts of coffee through.  If there is no heat, you'll need a coarser grind and chances are much higher that your espresso will be sour (read up on coarse grinds).  Aside from the heat factor, your portafilter needs to be clean, and not just the filter basket. If you've ever taken your basket out and touched the surface of the portfilter just underneath it, you will feel some grease. This coffee oil grease, if not cleaned immediately, will result in some rancid notes in the cup.  If you have a gas stove, you can burn this grease off, although I'd do it without the filter basket.  Most filter baskets will distort with the heat, thereby ruining the holes underneath and disrupting extraction flow.



Third, the gadgets are endless and mostly necessary.  There are days I wish I could just have a tamper surgically replace my middle finger because I feel like I'd get more use out of it.  No, I don't actually feel this way, but they're approaching that level of necessity.  An adequate tamper, one that won't break and fits properly, runs at least $20.  Then, if you enjoy milk-based drinks, you'll need a frothing pitcher (or pitchers, plural, if you like cappuccinos AND lattes), thermometer, some appropriately sized demitasse cups, a few cleaning clothes, steam wand cleaning utensil, and possibly some condiments.  For the espresso alone, you're going to need proper demitasses, water filters/softeners, a knock box, and perhaps upgrade your filter baskets by size or quality. The wallet-busting stuff comes into play when you factor in the optional doodads like chopped portafilters, frothing tips (which may be necessary), fancy group screens, tamping stations, VST filter baskets, etc... This is the part that takes espresso from a leisurely experience to a hobby/life-consuming obsession.



Finally, you'll never be happy with your performance or your equipment.  If you're painstakingly trying to recreate your favorite espresso bar moment at home, you'll fail, or at least you'll think you've failed.  I suggest that you pop a few Xanax before extracting your next espresso, you might enjoy it.  Maybe.                    






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