"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2002 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
2411/22/00 - One of the regular visitors to my website, who happens to be experienced in th ways of espresso, viewed my pull video and was kind enough to offer some suggestions. Among his comments, he stated, "I have to say, the pour is not what you should be getting. It turns white too soon, and the crema is too thin and light colored. Also the "corkscrewing" is not a good sign!
Good Days and Basket Days
These are things I had suspected, but having gone from way too short of a pull to way too long (in seconds) by varying the grind, I wasn't sure what else I could do. He did mention that I should take a look at http://www2.lucidcafe.com/lucidcafe/cafeforum/factors.html David Schomer "Factors in a Perfect Cup (of espresso)" where he offers some tips on attaining perfection including some images of a "perfect pour." His pour was thick, dark, and flowed like hot honey whereas my pulls were thinner, much lighter in color, and flowed like hot water.
After reviewing the article, I did think that there were some areas that I could work on. Particularly, the amount of coffee I use for a pull. I did the test the Mr. Schomer suggests, that you fill and tamp as you normally would, then insert the portafilter into the brew head and then remove it before actually pulling the shot. If there is an impression of the brewhead in the grounds, then there isn't enough room for the coffee to expand during the pull. I did the test, and sure enough, there was the impression of the showerhead I feared would be produced.
After my morning ritual I spent the next three or four pulls experimenting with using less ground coffee for the pull. Then I had to grind finer because with the lesser amount of coffee, the pull was faster. Then I had to increase the tamp. I went from 30 lbs. to 40 lbs. It all made little difference in my espresso. The result was a bit darker in the last example, but in a side-by-side comparison with three different pulls I could not taste much, if any difference. Beyond that, the puck was a watery mess that did not hold together at all. I was able to "pour" the last puck put of the filter handle. I gave up on this pursuit.
My visitor did suggest using the La Marzocco filter basket. This basket, when compared to the Rancilio basket, has much more vertical sides. It appears that it will hold a larger puck, and reports seem to indicate that it makes better crema. Sounds good to me! I actually have one on the way, so it will be interesting to see if it makes any difference.
11/26/00 - There's an old saying that you don't know what you got till it's gone, and that's the way this morning's espressos went. I had run out of Monkey and Donkey about three days ago and we have been "surviving" on some Alpenroast sample "natural" beans that I got from the Whole Latte Love folks with my order. These beans were quite nice, predominantly Arabica, and made some very nice espresso. I would have to say that it lacked some of the depth and complexity of the Monkey beans, but was very drinkable, indeed.
As the Natural was getting low I roasted up some of the "Americana" and "Bravada" blends from the same source. Well. I learned today what happens to the taste of espresso when the blend shifts more heavily towards Robusta beans. I tried the Americana and the taste was more bitter and lacked in the varietal flavors that I had already come to enjoy (without knowing it) in the Monkey and Donkey. This stuff just sort of tasted like "coffee" without the sweetness, nuttiness, chocolaty, or other little flavor nuances that espresso should be when properly blended. The Bravada blend is even more heavily blended towards Robusta, some of these beans were huge when compared to the Arabica or even some of the other Robusta beans in the other blends. I decided that I didn't have the nerve to brew espresso from these beans, so I gave them to a friend who used them in a drip machine and he said they were quite nice as drip coffee.
How do you tell the difference between Arabica and Robusta? Arabica beans are generally smaller and have a curved split line through them where the Robusta beans are larger and the split in the bean is straight. After roasting the size difference is even more easily discerned.
This same morning I also tried to brew from the last of the Illy espresso roasted beans that also came with my order. There was enough for about two pulls, and after the first pull I gave up on these beans. The can had been covered (I hesitate using the term 'sealed') by it's plastic lid, but upon opening the can this morning and smelling the beans I knew that it was a waste of time and water. Still, when you're low on beans, you'll take chances, so I ground, pulled, smelled the espresso, and then dumped it down the sink before I even tasted it. I mentioned that espresso should taste the way the ground coffee smells, and that's just what this was. The beans smelled old and stale- not rotten or spoiled, but they certainly lacked the heavenly perfume that fresh roasted beans possess. The espresso smelled exactly the same way- old and stale, and down the sink it went. These beans smelled and tasted very fresh when I opened the can, and so I would say that the Illy packaging and sealing system is quite good. Now, two weeks after opening the can, I would say that two week old roasted beans are way too old.
I suppose that this is a sign that I am already becoming a discerning espresso drinker- or at least, have become more discerning than I was seventeen days ago, before Silvia arrived. I am learning to trust my nose as well as having put together the smell with the taste. My previous experiences with the sour and bitter pulls have taught me that my nose can talk to my tongue if I let it. This morning I allowed the conversation concerning the old Illy beans, and my nose told my tongue, "Do you trust me? Do you care about me? If you value our friendship you won't taste that!" My tongue trusts my nose.
11/30/00 - It's not always tea and roses (coffee and petunias?) when it comes to espresso. This morning I was having one of those mornings that you just don't want to have. Fortunately, nothing happened that was injurious or will leave a scar, but it was a morning to be forgotten, but won't (be forgotten). First, I had a long day yesterday, being the print day for my newspaper. That evening I ended up with a neck-tension headache that wouldn't go away. Took a "Nighttime Excedrin" and an hour or two later three aspirin and none of that helped. Woke up this AM feeling spaced and not all there. Made two doubles (a Monkey and a Donkey), and although both were close enough to 20-25 seconds to count, both lacked in depth and both pucks were quite soupy. Although the first dose was a bit small, the puck evidently was blown around quite a bit and the entire thing stuck to the shower head when I removed the portafilter. When I finally finished up, cleaned up, and was walking over to the couch with my morning cappa, I spilled some of it on the table, the carpet, and myself. Welcome to the "World of Espresso!"
12/2/2000 - I still haven't found the source of the soupy-puck syndrome I was experiencing, but have written t off for the moment. One of the alt.coffee folks stated that it could be related to how long the puck is left in the portafilter. The theory is that the longer the puck is left the more time there is for the heat of the metal to vaporize the moisture out of the puck to dry it. It really isn't a concern other than it was a change I noticed and was searching for an answer. My routine is still being honed and is changing as I go along. I am not sure exactly what I have changed, but it takes less time to create two cappas now and it takes me less time to clean up as well. I am sure that this is in part to my establishing a routine and partly to the fact that I am working in a way that creates less of a mess as well. It could very well be that I was leaving the handle in the brewhead longer before.
I received my La Marzocco double filter basket yesterday afternoon and have had the opportunity to pull three doubles through it so far. This basket has a very different shape when compared to the Rancilio basket. It is deeper and its sides are straight instead of curved like the Rancilio's as seen below:
The volume of each is worthy of comparison as well. This was measured by filling each with unpacked coffee level with the top of the basket, then measuring the coffee, unpacked, in teaspoons, then converting to milliliters and fluid ounces:
The La Marzocco holds about 16.5% more volume than the Rancilio.
When using the La Marzocco basket I have already noticed that the pull starts darker and the crema remains a dark tan instead of turning to the whitish, very light tan color it did before. This seems to be particularly evident as the pull nears its end. With the La Marzocco basket the crema remains darker throughout. The Crema in the shot is noticeably darker as well even after the pull settles down (the "Guiness Effect"). The output from the portafilter is noticeably thicker, resembling the "warmed honey" to which brewing espresso is so often compared. I rarely got that with the Rancilio basket. Give me a week or so before I comment on any taste difference, but my wife, unsolicited, mentioned this morning that her cappa had a "richer" taste to it. I will post my taste opinions in a week or two, but just from the looks of things, I think the switch to the La Marzocco basket is a good one.