Can You Learn and Benefit from Using "Entry Level" Equipment?
Sunday, May 8, 2011
The question is, can a home barista using what is commonly referred to as "entry level" equipment, learn and develop important procedural and diagnostic skills that will serve them later if they move up to more capable equipment?
Let's look at the basic differences in the equipment which we are discussing. The entry level espresso machines most often recommended usually begin with various Gaggia machines and go up to about the level of the Rancilio Silvia. There are two important features that this general level of machines have in common: a relatively small single boiler that is designed to supply hot water for brewing espresso and steam for stretching milk, but not simultaneously. Also, thermostats that have a "dead band" of about 15 degrees (the range between the on and off points).
Grinders in the entry level generally lack stepless adjustment and generally supply two, or at the most three settings ("steps") that will work for espresso. The tolerance of the various parts such as motor bearings, motor mounts, burr adjustment and mechanism threads, and the tolerances and size of the burrs themselves combine to give a less than an accep[table range of particle sizes and even less repeatability.
When using these entry level home setups, and being challenged day to day, and even from extraction to extraction to get consistent or even adequate results, does the home barista develop a skill set that will serve them well in the future?
Entry level equipment as discussed above affects the results because there are so many variables which are not predictable, or at the very least, difficult to duplicate. In other words, inconsistent. The grind may lack fine adjustment or low tolerance adjustment may mean that the grind varies from one batch to the next or possibly has a very wide particle size range. The espresso machine may have a wide dead band for temperature, poor water distribution pattern, or overly-forceful initial water delivery. Or maybe all those things may be true.
So imagine that you are a home barista (you probably do not have to do so, as you likely already are). If you hit a really good espresso, what combination of factors made it happen? If the espresso is bad, what variable was incorrect that caused it? There is no way to tell. Worse yet is you get a great extraction, and without changing a thing you pull another shot and it is nowhere near the quality of the last one. What happened? What caused the change?
The key to making decent espresso is to control as many variables to as close a tolerance range as possible, so that over time you can learn, for example, what a two degree change in brew temperature does to the taste. Or begin to understand how the body is affected by a one gram increase in the mass of coffee accompanied by a half-step coarser grind setting to compensate. Make one of those changes, pull a shot or two and see if it helps, makes no difference, or if the espresso loses quality, all the while keeping all other factors unchanged.
That is only possible with quality equipment. Of course, "quality" is a relative thing to say the least. I started out thinking that $125 should be plenty for an espresso machine, ended up spending more like $350 for a Silvia (in late 2000), only to discover later that I could have spent less for the same level of espresso because all the machines in this entry-level category operate much the same way with much the same lack of consistency.
Stepping up to the next major tier of machines (currently selling for about $800 and above) gives the user a lot of unseen quality in terms of the product they produce. You get a lot more than just shiny chrome and larger boxes with fancy lights and gauges. The machines in this range supply temperature consistency, usually from larger boilers, and many have far better water distribution patterns as well as designs that allow water pressure to ramp up slowly instead of blasting the coffee straight away. The grinders are stepless and repeatable. Very small increments of grind adjustment are possible, and they hold that adjustment until you decide to change it. With equipment like that, the variables are controllable (or at least, controlled) so that the home barista (you) can make one little change and tell if it was a wise change.
With that degree of control over the process, as time goes by the barista can taste the espresso, and in some cases just watch the flow, and know what changes need to take place (if any) to produce acceptable results. It might be as simple as trying a new distribution technique to test what method works bust with your grinder. That can only be accomplished with quality equipment. Watching the color of the flow can often let you know if that finer grind was a good idea, and certainly, the taste will tell you as well.
A new barista can use basic, inconsistent equipment for a year or two, getting shots that are 5% very good, about 15% good, about 60% drinkable (just), and the rest undrinkable straight and should be considered sink shots. But how can you know? When you finally get to a shop where you can taste a really great espresso; buttery smooth, sweet, rich, deep, a lingering depth that lasts twenty minutes on the palate, and with flavors of all description dancing on the palate, you have a standard established. So you you go home and try to duplicate that taste, sometimes even using the same coffee. If lucky, you might get close, but probably not twice in a row. So you spend the rest of the pound of coffee trying, the results are often a pound of disappointment and searching for a reason why.
So what can you as a home barista learn from using inconsistent equipment? The virtue of patience, possibly. That you like (or don't like) espresso, but as likely, only that you need better equipment. It is very difficult for an aspiring home barista, contemplating their first purchase of equipment, to comprehend advice that the best way to begin is to spend around $300-500 or more on a grinder and $800 or more on an espresso machine. Honestly, that advice would not have worked on me when I started out, and budgetary considerations also are a factor. My advice is that if you can bypass the entry-level setup, but still want good coffee at home, think about approaching coffee from another direction Get an excellent grinder first, and pair it with an economy brewing device. For specific details, see my article "The Best Coffee for the Least Amount of Money".
You can't achieve consistency with inconsistent equipment.