If I’m any kind of expert, I’m a hi-fi expert. Every hour spent in the listening chair time has helped me learn: what to listen for and how to get more of what I (or others) might value in sound quality. Those hours – thousands of them – have piled up to form what we call experience.
What I’m not is a coffee expert. I can work a stovetop machine but it doesn’t produce the same espresso shots that I enjoy at my local cafe. Could I learn to make a proper espresso at home? There was only one way to find out.
My gut told me that the pursuit of a decent homemade espresso would hold many parallels to hi-fi. That I would face some steep learning curves at the outset, then, if I was lucky, a few breakthrough moments, a plateau and then maybe another set of steep inclines followed by another breakthrough. Keeping abreast of theory and then putting that theory into practice would be instrumental in pulling my first decent espresso shot.
I started with a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine (€599) at the tail end of 2018 and for most of 2019, I struggled. Crema is the red/brown froth that sits atop a freshly-poured shot. It’s instrumental to the flavour, texture and visual appeal of an espresso. It enhances drinking pleasure. What I’d seen and drunk at my local cafe was not what I was seeing and drinking at home with the Rancilio Silvia.
Immediately upon opening a fresh bag of beans, I could summon a shot with a very shallow blonde top layer and a hint of sweetness/nuttiness. After that, it was downhill until my next fresh bag of beans. Most mornings, I’d find myself staring directly into the blackest of black coffee, which often gave a slightly bitter aftertaste.
What was I doing wrong?
The culprit couldn’t be the espresso machine itself. I’d watched too many YouTube videos of the Rancilio delivering crema-laden shots to think of it as anything other than capable. It couldn’t be the beans either, sourced from the same cafe at which I drink daily. At one point, I became so frustrated with my home pours that I asked the coffee shop staff to walk me through their process. Confirmed: my beans were fresh and I was dosing the right amount for a double shot: 16g – 18g.
All signs pointed to the grinder: a Graef CM800 whose €150 price tag told me it wasn’t the best grinder on the planet but neither could it be the worst. Moreover, it ground coffee fine enough to cause the Rancilio’s extraction to grind to a halt after only a few drops and coarse enough to solicit an overly fast n’ loose pour. In between lay the optimum grade that I’d been using every day to bring the right weight of liquid coffee (30 – 35g) through the portafilter in the right amount of time (25 – 35 secs). Some days, I’d nudge it to the left, other to the right, but the problem remained: no crema.
How on earth could the grinder be at fault? The right grind setting is the right grind setting. I could find no measured proof that the way in which a grinder did its job could make a difference to the output of the espresso machine. Coffee is coffee. “Bits (of coffee) are just bits (of coffee)”. It’s what my Nespresso friends tell me. It’s what my Father taught me.
Emboldened by a childhood memory, my attention returned to the Rancilio Silvia. Maybe it was faulty and I’d lived with it too long to return it? Could those YouTube videos that demonstrated crema pouring from its portafilter have been CGI-d? Was I a victim of a coffee grinder sales conspiracy? What I needed was a better espresso machine – but that would have to wait.
In the meantime, the unsatisfactory shots continued. I added hot water to turn them into long blacks. Irritated by masking the Silvia’s shortcomings with an additional step, I stopped using it altogether. For the next three months, a stovetop Bialetti proved to be less fuss and for long blacks, just as good as the Rancilio. I’d fallen out of love with making espresso at home.
Three months went by when, one grey winter’s morning, calling long distance to my Australian accountant, I remembered that he was a coffee expert. He’d consulted on a number of espresso machine designs. He’d know to which model I should step up.
My accountant’s advice wasn’t what I expected at all. He made it clear in no uncertain terms that:
- despite being an entry-level model, an espresso machine of the Rancilio Silvia’s calibre should be able to produce espresso with an abundance of crema
- my lack of crema was almost certainly down to Graef grinder. Why? Its smaller burrs likely weren’t producing coffee particles of a consistent size
- better grinders feature larger burrs for more consistent particle size and, therefore, a more even extraction
- very few, if any, grinder manufacturers could (or would) publish measurements relating to their models’ ground consistency;
- not even a thousand YouTube videos could stand-in for proper first-hand experience
- I would have to try a better grinder before buying it or, more likely, take the plunge and just buy one (preferably, one that came with a money-back satisfaction guarantee);
And which grinder would my accountant suggest? The Baratza Sette 270wi — a superior grinder that also electronically dosed the freshly ground coffee directly into the portafilter. Price: €569.
If the Sette 270wi didn’t make my home pours deliver on crema, I had 14 days to return it.
That time-limited window quickly passed. Two weeks turned into two months. Was I afraid of having my deeply held belief – that a grinder is a grinder – turned upside down? Perhaps. Two months became six. Enough was enough. I had to unbox the Baratza and find out.
Setup was an unexpected cinch. I turned on the Rancilio to give it plenty of time to heat the water.
Baratza’s recommendation was to start the grind at 9E and then dial in from there; 9 on the macro-settings wheel, E on the micro. The dose wasn’t your typical 18g but coffee expert James Hoffman’s recommended starting point: 16g.
Hitting the grind button produced six seconds of (quite loud) grinding noise as the coffee grounds fell into the basket. I tamped them down, locked the portafilter into place on the Silvia, pulled a nicely warmed cup from the top of the espresso machine, hit ‘brew’ and held my breath.
When the coffee began to flow from the portafilter’s spouts I felt a spark of excitement — was this the moment I’d been waiting for? It was indeed. The finished shot had a nice layer of crema on top; it might have been even more impressive had I turned off brewing a couple of seconds earlier (before it had started to blonde). Not bad at all for a first go on the Sette 270wi. It could only get better from there.
At last, I had in my hands what I’d always wanted from a home espresso setup: an espresso shot properly finished with a layer of crema. My first decent shot arriving on the back of my first breakthrough coffee moment, both facilitated by letting go of stubborn adherence to immature thinking and allowing myself to be guided by someone with more experience than me.
The Phoenix USB re-clocker from Innuos is up next.