Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2011 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
"Miscela, Macinazione, Macchina, Mano"
(Blend, Grind, Machine, Hand)
A Re-examination

Sunday, August 14, 2011

      A question recently was asked on one of the coffee forums:
      If you had to divide, into percentages, the factors that go into making an espresso: the grinder, the espresso machine, the coffee, and the barista, how would you rate them?
      I would answer, how CAN you separate them TO rate them? Any one of the factors in that list, if not sufficiently up to the task, can relegate the importance of the others to a level of just trying to make a beverage that doesn't belong in the sink. It a synergistic relationship regulated by the weakest link in the chain.
      Personally, I think that the list in the title of this chapter is somewhat dated and presumptuous. It assumes that the grinder is a quality device, and that the blend is properly roasted. But to be fair, it probably was not aimed at the home barista, and it apparently assumes that the professional already had quality equipment and so it lumps together the espresso machine and the grinder. Fair enough, but let's take that list, rewrite it, and examine it from the perspective of the home barista. In that case, I would offer that it would look like this:

GrinderHome Barista
Espresso MachineCoffee Beans

      I have grouped these factors into two distinct categories for a specific purpose. The qualities and performance levels of the group on the left are fixed. You buy them and they are what they are, and will mostly always be just that, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, 'till sale do you part. The coffee grinder and the espresso machine come to you as they are, and will operate for their lifetime within a range of parameters and effectiveness constrained by design, manufacturing tolerances, quality of materials, and so forth. The boiler will never get larger, the group will never get heavier, and the heating element will never heat the water faster. If anything, over time, the machine will perform at a lower level than when purchased.
      The grinder has an adjustment that allows it to grind in a certain way with an output that will always be more or less the same other than allowing you to adjust the grind range of particle size. Even after some use, if the burrs are replaced, it still, more or less, grinds as it did when new. For good or for bad, it is what it is, and will always be so. As with the espresso machine, wear on the motor's bearings and of the adjustment threads will, over time, degrade its performance.
      The espresso machine will always deliver water the same way other than (in some cases) supplying the ability to adjust brew temperature and maximum brewing force. If it delivers water fast and quick, it will always do so. If it is designed to deliver water gently, and slowly ramp up the force, wonderful. There are some modifications that some users make to their machines, and some machines benefit from manipulations of various functions, but you can't make a button thermostat behave like a pressurestat and you can't make a pressurestat behave like a PID. A group bolted to the bottom of a boiler behaves in one way, and the thermosyphon heating of an E-61 group in another, and that's what they will always be. Silk purse, or sow's ear, one or the other is what you have, and that's that.
      The group of factors on the right in our list is quite the opposite. As fixed as the items on the left are in function and effectiveness, those on the right afford a flexibility and adaptability that can be (if we desire) ever-changing, and with attentiveness and desire, ever-improving.
      The barista, if he or she so cares, can learn, improve, change, modify, add, remove, adjust, and adapt their techniques, knowledge, and abilities as time goes by. A barista can adapt and adjust to get the best from what is presented to them in terms of equipment and coffee. Indeed, the fact that you have been reading this website is, in and of itself, proof that you are one of the baristas who look for ways to make yourself an even more effective espresso technician and artist.
      The coffee, obviously, can be changed. With the variety of suppliers, roasts, blends, and even the choice of roasted or roast-your-own, getting what you want in the cup is an enjoyable adventure. Beyond that, many of us purchase a different coffee or create a different blend just for the sake of change. Variety is, indeed, the spice of life. As with nearly all factors in our lives, with the exception of (my wife tells me) the choice of a spouse, change is good, and even then, there are notable exceptions.
      You can choose to grow into your equipment, or you purchase a machine and grinder with the knowledge that someday you may outgrow your equipment. Long term marriage or scheduled divorce- you choose. When I first started out (in espresso, not in marriage) there was a wider, somewhat more defined chasm between the entry level equipment and the next step up. Silvia marked the upper end of the entry-level, single-boiler, dual-use machines. The step up to a HX machine at that time was around double the cost or more, and there were fewer choices. Today the price gap has narrowed, and if you include the addition of a PID system to a Silvia your foot is in the door to a HX machine.
      I don't want to get back into a discussion of price ranges and am not trying to make a point of how to spend your dollars to get the most for the least. My point is: If you are going to commit to buying equipment to make espresso at home, carefully examine your level of commitment.

THE MORAL: It is far easier to improve yourself and your coffee than it is to try to get your equipment to perform better. You can choose to grow into your equipment, or purchase with the knowledge that you may very well outgrow your equipment.

Coffee Cup
  -   -   - Silvia
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