Serious coffee

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Before I begin, let me explain to you how much I love coffee. I mean I really love coffee. Now don’t go thinking I’m one of those guys that if they don’t drink 20 cups a day they get withdrawal symptoms… It’s more like three cups. But not any 3 cups, oh no. Those three cups have to be the best most delicious experience known to a caffeinated human.
Yes, I’m that person sitting opposite you as you wash down a mug of instant brown stuff. It really is that painful to me as I watch people do it. Sure, it kind of smells like coffee, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t always a coffee snob, and I never thought I would be. For years I drank some form of instant coffee. And when I felt in a particularly luxurious mood I’d pop down to the shops to buy myself a some ground coffee beans from some house hold brand or other. This all stop that one fateful day when an Aussie coffee shop opened up just down the road from the office I was working at the time.
I remember being confused and totally bewildered by the experience of entering this place for the first time. They had coffees on the menu that I’d never heard; Flat white, Long black, Macchiato, Cortado etc. This certainly was a long way from the what the high street coffee shops were selling and what even the local old Italian delis had. I’d become accustomed to coffee being bitter, dark and having very little in the way of variety. Starbucks had trained me to think that variety didn’t come from the beans or how it was prepared, but instead by those disgustingly sweet syrups they laden over their milk drenched caffeinated liquids shudders.

Sure, the coffee was expensive and came in much smaller sizings. But I loved it. Just a cup or two a day was enough to satiate my cravings for deliciousness. The times when I did find myself feeling irritable were when I’d been forced to grab a coffee from a high street chain for a random business meeting. You’d think that the reason why I’d be twitchy from this would be by my self declared coffee snobbery, but you’d only be partially correct. Something I notice between artisan coffee shops and high street chains is the amount of caffeine contained within.
People go to Starbucks because they want the perceived experience from the place and value from the seemingly large portions within their cup. Oh and not forgetting the buzz from the coffee, due to the increased caffeine found within.

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Now I love artisan coffee shops. I love how each one is quite individual and how the experience differs between each one. I also love how the coffee can taste dramatically different, even though in London a lot of them use the same Square Mile blend. This is due to how each shop preps, extracts and serves each coffee. Not to mention that some places have quite different choices on what should be the perfect water to brew coffee with.
What I didn’t love was when I was at home with no access to a good coffee shop nearby. Now, like a lot of people I chose to move out of London a number of years ago. And while I love the extra space and the greenery afforded to me by living outside of the city, it does come at the cost of there being few local restaurants and even fewer coffee shops. Let alone a place that actually understands the finer nuances of extraction.

So because of this I’d been playing around for a while with trying to make coffee at home that appeals to my spoilt palette. I’ve gone through them all:

  • French press
  • Vietnamese coffee filter
  • V60 drip filter
  • Aeropress
  • Moka pot
  • And finally the daddy, the Francino Cherub

I’m not going to go through all of them and explain the differences. They all have their place depending on your mood, and they’re all well documented by various places on the web.
However, if I were to point out my least favourites it would be the French press and Aeropress. The French press, simply because I’ve never had a cup of coffee from it that I’ve genuinely though was great. Another reason would be because of its nature, even if you pre-warm it with boiling water, I find that it always produces a coffee at a less that satisfying temperature.
The same can be said for the Aeropress. Now, apart from it cooling the coffee down during extraction beyond my preference. I also find it just produces a slightly more intense version of a French press. Albeit with some crema on top. Yes I know some people rave about these things and you can even go to some artisan coffee shops and get an Aeropress coffee made to order. But I just never found the extracted results to be particularly satisfying.

If you were to ask me the easiest and cheapest way to make a hot cup of well extracted coffee I would say the Moka pot. I’m not sure why it always seems to get overlooked by many people. Maybe it’s the fact that you need a stove for this rather than a simple electric kettle.
It should also not be confused with the French version which works in a totally different way and if you’re not careful produces stewed results.
Where in the French pot hot water is pushed up through a tube and is spread over the coffee granules where it then falls back into the already extracted coffee at the bottom of the pot. The Moka pot is designed so that hot water and steam is pushed upward through the ground coffee into its own separate chamber. Thus, the already extracted coffee never re-circulates.

I’ve always found Moka pots to produce, hot and well extracted coffee. Even turning some shop bought pre-grounds into sparkling examples of good coffee. Yes, I know this sounds quite far fetched, but when I was in Italy, miles from the nearest town, I’d always look forward to my morning cup made with a Moka pot that I’d sip before heading out to the beach. Bliss…
Oh, sorry. I was having a moment. Where was I? Oh, right coffee. So if you’re like me at some point you’ll obviously want to level up and try your hand at making a home made Espresso or maybe be a little more adventurous and experiment with Latte art.

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That’s where my journey began with Espresso machines. Unless you plan on opening your own coffee shop or are just really lucky to have space for a large commercial machine, you’ll be looking at the following options:

  • HSX
  • Single boiler
  • Dual boiler

What are the differences you ask? Well, it all comes down to cost and time. HSX is what you’ll find on most of the cheap budget Espresso machines you find in the shops. The bit that heats up the water isn’t a water tank (also known as the boiler), but a heat exchanger that wraps the tubing that delivers the water.
Benefits to a HSX are space and the time required from turning it on in the morning to being able to make your first Espresso.

There was a time when HSX machines were looked upon as cheap things that made poor coffee. Probably to do with not having a consistent temperature during coffee extraction and most HSX machines not having something called an E61 head.
Yup, I know it sounds like some sort of food preservative. It’s actually the name for quite an old design that is still used today like my Francino Cherub. The E61 head is basically the assembly visible by the round head in which you put the Espresso handle into. Hot water is circulated around the head, so that the water doesn’t cool down and remains stable as hot steam and water is pushed through the coffee.

In most commercial coffee machines, the E61 has been replaced by the immersion head which guarantees even more stable temperatures during extraction. But we won’t talk about that because, really if you can afford a machine with an immersion head then you’re not going to be reading this and instead probably training for a Barista championship.

I can’t totally dismiss HSX machines totally though as some high end domestic coffee machines such as the Sage use this and actually do make a decent cup of coffee with some practice. The only thing that I’m a bit wary of is the serviceability of HSX machines. They’re not traditionally famous of their reliability or their ease of maintenance.

If you’ve never had an Espresso machine before and you want something that not only extracts coffee well with a bit of practice but also allows you to dabble with Latte art then I highly recommend the Gaggia Classic.
It’s small so doesn’t take up anywhere near as much room as the competition, plus because it’s got an aluminium boiler it heats up relatively fast. Perfect for when you wonder bleary eyed into your kitchen to make a cup of Joe.
Another reason why I love this little machine is because it’s cheap. Like really cheap, especially if you buy an open box/returned unit off Amazon Warehouse. I’ve seen them reduced to under $100 before.

There is one caveat though, but it’s really only obvious if you’re really into your Cappuccino’s or Flat whites. First, they changed the nozzle on the steam wand a few years ago. Why does this matter? Well the steam wand if you hadn’t guessed it yet is what you use to steam and froth that lovely milk into a silky smooth blanket that sits atop your coffee. The new nozzle is designed to aerate the milk with large bubbles. Great for wet Cappucinos, terrible for the fine bubbles required to make a Flat White or a great Latte.
Don’t worry though as the steam wand can be easily replaced with alternatives off Ebay, albeit it does require a little bit of DIY.

The second thing you might want to be aware of with the Gaggia Classic is the fact it’s only a single boiler. This means there’s only one tank in which to heat up water and because of the units size, it’s not that large. After you’ve made your Espresso, you’ll only have a little bit of steam left to froth your milk. And if you’ve got guests around or a large family, be prepared to wait between each drink.

Other than that, I really do love the Classic. More so than the bigger more impressive looking Rancillo Silvia which will set you back more and requires a fair bit of practice while you get the knack of “temperature surfing”. The only reason why I think you might want to consider the Rancillo would be if you wanted to practice Latte art and so needed a bigger boiler.

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Now, if you’ve already been using one of those previously mentioned Espresso machines and feel you’re ready to level up then before you do, I highly recommend checking out Ebay first. Why? Well, the thing is that 80% of the people out there that think that they need a semi professional coffee machine, actually have no idea how large they are within their kitchen or the amount of effort involved.
My own all chrome Cherub which retails for around £1300 GBP, I found on Ebay for just over £400. It was less than a month old and had been bought by a couple who’d been upgrading their kitchen. While the husband was happy for the morning ritual to make a Latte, his wife wasn’t so thrilled and preferred the push button convenience found in other domestic machines.

Anyways, their loss was my gain… Muhahahahah. Seriously though, if you are thinking of upgrading to something bigger than a Gaggia Classic you should really go to a show room and check out your chosen machine first. They’re big and won’t always fit on your work top, plus some of them need to be plugged directly into the water mains.

If you do have space though and you drink a lot of coffee, then you could be the proud owner of a nice dual boiler Espresso machine. As mentioned previously I got myself a Francino Cherub, with its E61 head and dual boiler setup so that I could extract coffee and steam milk at the same time. Something, that you won’t be able to do with a single boiler machine and something that’s quite important to me as I’m very strict as to the temperature of the milk as I take my first sip.

Now, I know Francino sounds like it was made in Italy, but funnily enough they’re made in Birmingham, UK. Why did I choose this machine over an Italian made model? I guess it was the balance of price and features. Also, virtually every Francino owner I’ve talked to will tell you how reliable they are and how fantastic their customer service is. Something that can’t always be said for some of the prettier semi-professional coffee machines from Italy.

Now, I’d be a very bad person if after talking about all these different ways of coffee extraction that I missed the most important thing of all.
So you know how a lot of tech people in the industry spend lots of money on a keyboard and mouse? The reason for this is that for a lot of programmers, the better quality your input devices are the faster/better quality their output will be.
And it’s the same for coffee. The better quality the input the better the output will be. Now, I’m not talking just about coffee beans. No, I’m actually talking about something far more important. The grinder.

For many people they’ll go through multiple coffee machines in their life time, but only one or two grinders. That is if they pick a decent one to begin with. If you don’t pick a burr grinder that is capable of producing and even and consistent grind, then you’ll never be able to get a good extraction from your Espresso machine. It’s that simple. Please don’t go spending a couple of hundred dollars on a machine, only to then spend $50 on a grinder. Not only will that grinder most likely give up the ghost after a year, you’ll probably end up with a thin and fast extraction.
OK, so I’m stretching the truth a little. If you don’t mind spending 5 minutes using a hand grinder in the morning then I can heartily recommend a Hario burr grinder. But be warned, in order to get the required grind/quantity be prepared to be turning that handle for some time!
Oh, one last tip. Unless you plan on operating a small cafe and have to make coffee for a dozen people in a row, I strongly recommend you don’t get a grinder with a dispenser. They’re messy, require cleaning and also take up a bit more space. If you buy you’re grinder of eBay, then you should try and stay clear those particular ones.

There’s this useful article on Life Hacker http://lifehacker.com/five-best-burr-coffee-grinders-1653494382 on suitable burr grinders for the home that you might find useful.
Trust me, a good grinder can make the world of difference to an espresso and totally transform something that was bitter and bland into something that is bright and chocolatey depending on the bean.

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Jonathan Conway

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