Thursday, July 7, 2011

Espresso Adventures

At the request of Yas, I have decided to blog also about some of the other things that interest me, today after a very heated debate about the merits of a Baratza Vario coffee grinder I have decided to blog about espresso.  I have just finished 3 shots of espresso in the last 20 mins or so and I think that is about the limit of which I can handle for today.

Shot of my Breville 800ESXL, I have had this machine now for almost 3 years.  It was an impulse purchase down at Macy's and I got it for 40% off during one of their morning sales as the beautiful shiny finish forced me to buy it :) (I'm a sucker for gadgets or so I've been told).  I believe all in it was ~$300 US.  Currently you can find this machine for around $299 at Costco, it has since been discontinued and the replacement model retails for around $500.

A little bit about the Breville, upon first glance firstly it's shiny and metal has some serious heft to it.  Unfortunately there are a couple of flaws

  • It uses a thermoblock rather than a boiler as a heating element
  • Pressurized porta filter baskets (more on this later)

First the thermoblock, vs boiler, vs heat exchanger.  In the world of espresso machines those are the three methods for heating the water.  Ideally the water should be at 92-96°C when it hits the coffee and the problem with thermoblock's is that they have difficulty maintaining a stable temperature, boilers and heat exchangers are more stable in that regard however they can often over heat the water just as easily.  Too hot or too cold and you have a less than ideal extraction, most entry model espresso machines will use a thermoblock.

As this machine utilizes a thermoblock I have found that in order to get the temperature of the water higher I usually fill the water with hot tap water rather than the recommended cold water. 

A shot of the accessories that come with the Breville, from left to right
Porta-filter with plastic insert, "Pod Filter basket", tamping tool and measuring scoop, and finally the pressurized double shot basket.  Missing from this picture is the single shot basket and the milk frothing container.

As you can see from the above pictures everything is included to get you started other than the water and coffee.  The included accessories are suitable to be used in combination and will produce an espresso that appears to have nice crema regardless of what you use.

In the ideal world your espresso process would be as follows.

  1. Grind you beans seconds before you plan to brew your coffee
  2. Your machine will be filled with fresh cold water and will be at a temperature of 92-96°C
  3. You will flush your porta-filter and espresso cup with water from the machine in order to preheat them
  4. You will apply 30lbs of force on your tamper to compress the coffee in the porta-filter
  5. From the moment the pump starts it will take 25-30 seconds to "pull" your shot.
Assuming you meet all the above conditions you should have have an amazing shot of espresso for your consumption.

Unfortunately the setup out of the box leaves much to be desired, obviously with the plastic tamper it will be difficult to apply 30lbs of force to the porta-filter.  But fear not included is a pressurized basket that artificially creates a crema by only allowing the water to pass thru once it has attained a specific pressure.

With an unpressurized basket too coarse or too fine a grind with too much or too little tamping force will result in either an under-extracted or over extracted shot of espresso.  One being really watered down and one being extremely bitter.  In some cases too fine a grind will "choke" the machine (Not sure what will happen with all the pressurized water.

As I started to tinker with the machine and look for upgrades/mods I could perform to improve the quality of my espresso and my technical skills, I discovered the following

  • Need an unpressurized basket so that I could control the tamping and quality of the grind
  • Need a better tamper to apply pressure
With those two items in mind my first step was to get a nicer tamper.  After reading multiple reviews I settled on a beautiful Reg Barber 
anodized aluminum tamper sized with a 51mm stainless steel base.

This tamper allows me to apply more consistent pressure and is much more manegable compared to the "spoon" that is included.  At the time I made this purchase I also bought a nice knockbox to dump the grinds into.

The unpressurized basket was the next challenge, this one was a real doozy.  I experimented with La Pavoni baskets in single and boule shots but they did not fit properly.  After looking online I was able to find one in Lynwood, Washington at Seattle Coffee Gear,

Notice all the fine holes this is a modified La Pavoni filter, which works as advertised but brought me to my next problem.

Quality of the grind....

With my Krupps GVX2 conical burr grinder I was unable to get a fine enough grind in order to take advantage of my new espresso making system.  So the machine sat idle for quite some time until in Venice I purchased a can of illy coffee that was pre-ground for espresso machines.  At long last I would be able to test out my technique !

At a whopping 5 Euro's ($8) it was worth the risk to buy this and give the Breville a try once more (By this point I was contemplating on getting a Rancillio Silvia)

Almost 8 months after returning from Europe I decided after a long drawn out "discussion" with Yas to fire up the Breville before buying a new grinder.

I preheated the thermoblock using hot tap water to get the temperature up.  I have since modified the porta-filter holder by removing the plastic bit in the bottom.

Ideally you want 7 grams per shot and since I have double shot basket I would need 14 grams of coffee.
So to be all scientific I decided to weigh my empty heated porta-filter and it came out at 499g

After filling the porta-filter with coffee and weighing it it was 520g (Mistake #1 - I have now compressed a triple shot of espresso into a double shot basket) Note: Prior to this I had 2 oz of espresso straight up so I was rather wired....

After applying a whole of pressure tamping my porta-filter i proceeded to pull a shot.  The timing of an espresso shot begins once the pump starts and ends once you turn off the machine.
I was a little concerned when once I started the machine up nothing came up, 30 seconds later I ended up with one ounce of coffee, from a triple shot of espresso stuffed into a double shot basket.  It tasted awfully bitter even with sugar added.

Lessons learned
  • 7 grams per shot, so I should always be pulling 14 grams
  • I think I have either too much coffee or have applied too much pressure as the extraction time/amount was really off
  • As my illy is pre ground I can safely assume that it is the correct size for an unpressurized porta-filter

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