Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2007 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
(It's not a new superhero!)

     We are creatures of habit, and that is good, but we are creatures of habit and that can be bad. Habits allow us to safely and effectively accomplish numerous daily tasks with little thought or concentration, freeing our minds to accomplish other tasks at the same time. When it comes to espresso, habits can be detrimental. The longer you use one machine and one coffee and drink one style of beverage, the greater the likelihood that you will fall into a "rut" and that is when your habits will (or can) negatively affect your espresso's quality.

     As you read in the last chapter, I have recently upgraded from Silvia (which will soon be on the way to a new owner, beginning a new chapter in someone else's life). For the last three months I have been using a Vibiemme Domobar Super. The differences between the two machines are dramatic— single boiler vs. heat exchanger; one pint boiler vs. half gallon boiler; set brew pressure vs. adjustable OPV; the list goes on. With all the differences, it might seem to make sense that there would be differences in the way the barista would need to approach the machine, but i think that there is a lesson to be learned here regardless as to what machine you use.

     At Home there has been a thread, begun by Ken Fox, that outlined his results in testing different dosing levels of coffee. Up to this point I was happy with filling Silvia's basket and leveling off, but changed my methods after reading his The entire thread became one of great interest and debate. You can read all the details for yourself, but the important point, as was stated by Ken, was, "What I have been doing during the last week is dosing 14g into the portafilters, as opposed to the 18 or 19g I used to use routinely." Sounds simple enough.

     I had been dialing in my new machine, but was looking to learn all I could about its capabilities, so I decided to give Ken's under-dosing a try. it really did make a difference. Under-dosing does a number of things for you:

  1. It leaves more headroom for the coffee to expand as the water saturates the puck.
  2. It leaves more space for the water to distribute itself evenly across the coffee.
  3. It allows for a slightly finer grind which potentially gives a better extraction.
So I gave this "new" method a try, and it really did improve my espresso, quite dramatically, to the point that I now under-dose every single pull.
Under-dosing helped improve my espresso. I am now getting better, more viscous crema than ever before. That is two ounces of nearly 100% crema. This is with my personal house blend and home roast from my Hottop model "KN-8828B."

     My new procedure involves the following:

  • Grind and dose as normal. I use the doser lever of Rocky to continually thwack the coffee into the portafilter. I try to dispense the coffee to get as even and level of a distribution as possible. After the first one or two tries, I ended up with a grind that was one click finer.
  • I have been judging the amount of coffee by eye, slightly underfilling the basket.
  • I tap the sides of the basket with the top of the tamper, my goal being to get the coffee more level and to evenly distribute the coffee. By tapping various points around the portafilter lip as necessary, and combining the tapping with a tilting of the portafilter as well I can get a distribution that is nearly perfect. This not only levels the coffee, but has the added benefit of filling voids below the surface of the coffee.
  • A downward tap or two of the portafilter further settles and distributes the coffee.
  • For my first tamping I use the joystick, tipping the tamper a bit to compress the outer edges of the puck with a circular motion of the tamper, using it like a joystick, but with only slight force— the weight of the tamper is about all I use here.
  • A tamp at about 20 pounds, then a final side tap to dislodge any loose grounds along the inside of the portafilter. After that I give it the handstand tamp, probably using abut 50 or more pounds of force.

         If you have been reading along through my chapters over the years you will immediately notice that I have changed an lot of the procedure from what I have previously used, and that is the entire point of this chapter. Although my previous recommendations to new baristas was to fill, level, and tamp at about 30 pounds (and even than, there have been variations through the years) the point is that you should not become so addicted to habitual procedure that you shun change.

         Ken advocates using a digital scale and measuring the coffee's mass. These small pocket scales, capable of displaying .1 grams, are available starting at about $20 or $25 on eBay. The range is sufficient on most of them if you want to weigh into an intermediate vessel and then dose to th portafilter. If you want to dose directly into the portafilter from the grinder, be sure to pick a scale with sufficient capacity to handle the added weight of the portafilter. I have not gone to that extent yet— I have been successfully using the eyeball method, merely under-filling the basket by eye.

         All these things, working together, seem to give a more thorough extraction, and more importantly, on my machine with my coffee, to my tastes, this process makes better espresso. See for yourself:

    The striping is amazing, but even more so was the gloppy, thick crema. I could actually hear it plop into the cup. Crema is often described and warm honey in consistency, and this is it!

         The bottom line is that you should always be searching for ways to improve your espresso— if you have a PID, then experiment with temperature changes. Try using a finer grind with less coffee. Try stopping the pull at 1.75 ounces instead of 2.25 ounces. Watch the pull closely and stop before the stream loses viscosity. Never stop searching for ways to improve your espresso.

Coffee Cup
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