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May
19
2010

My new espresso machine

Laura What, another post about espresso? Well until something truly earth-shattering happens chez PLJ, this’ll have to do!

I’ve owned a decent Krups espresso machine for the past three years or so, but lately I’ve become dissatisfied with the quality of espresso it’s been making. Researching the topic, I’ve found that the main reason for my sub-par coffee is the little basket you put the coffee grounds in, called the portafilter.

Many entry-level espresso machines have what’s called a pressurized portafilter. Exactly how it works is a little arcane for this blog, but suffice to say that it makes poor-quality espresso look better by faking crema. (Crema is the reddish-brown foam floating on the top of espresso that adds a thick, almost viscous, mouthfeel; it is the mark of quality espresso.) Pressurized portafilters can fake crema from bad coffee beans, but it does nothing positive with good beans.

One of the interesting things about espresso is supposed to be how its flavour profile can change if you alter any of three elements of grind, dose and tamp. Over the years, using fresh, top-notch beans, I’ve experimented with grind size, dose (how much grinds I’ve stuffed into the basket), and how hard I’ve tamped (pressed down) the coffee bed in the filter—with absolutely no change in the quality of the shot. Clearly, really good espresso was way beyond the capabilities of my limited machine.

Since I had some gift money burning a hole in our bank account, I decided to buy a new machine. After literally months of research* I settled on a Lelit (an Italian brand—as are most of the good espresso machine companies). I got the machine from idrinkcoffee.com, a local online retailer who have been very helpful (they sent a long email response to a list of my questions). When I got the package via FedEx, also included in the box were a whole slew of freebie goodies: a nice, heavy, rosewood-handled tamper; 6 espresso cups, saucers and spoons; a frothing pitcher; and a 1/2-lb. bag of the company’s house coffee beans. Wow. Peter’s pretty coffee neutral, but even his eyes popped when he saw all this extra swag!

Old and new espresso machines
Old machine at left; new machine at right. Shiny! Note tiny cups on top of machine, and wood-handled tamper at right—just some of my freebies!

For my first pull I took a stab at the grind size on my manual coffee grinder—I was lucky and it turned out to be not a bad guess at all. Decent-looking crema and texture; a bit bitter, but not too bad. I’ll have to fiddle a bit more over the next few days, but already my shots are tastier than my old Krups. I can see that while I’m learning how to use this machine, manual grinding lots of practice shots is going to get a bit old. My first frothed milk was a bit of a mess since I opened up the steam knob a little too far and blasted the milk all over the counter. Learning curve, here I come!

Interesting Fact: Espresso was only invented in the early 1900s. The first machines that became commercially popular were manually-driven machines with large lever handles which the operator pulled to provide the pressure for forcing water through the coffee grinds. (This is where the term “pulling a shot” came from.) These large levers could only muster enough pressure to produce an ounce or two of coffee; it just wasn’t physically possible to get a larger volume of liquid. By the time electric pump machines were invented mid-century, people had gotten used to tiny cups of espresso, so the small volumes stuck, even though electric pumps could theoretically blast out any amount of liquid into a cup. Considering that 2 oz. of espresso has the same amount of caffeine as 8 oz. of regular coffee, that’s probably just as well.


* This is nothing unusual for me, and agonizing for months is par for the course for every household appliance I’ve ever bought. “Spur of the moment” is a term unknown to me in the area of purchasing.

3 comments

  1. David "Now Yer Talkin'!" Barker says:

    Now yer talkin’!

  2. Laura says:

    After another day of practice runs, I’m very happy with the machine, except for its steam wand. It’s way too short! Even though the Krups lacked any kind of steaming power, I could actually make decent microfoam on it with its nicely-shaped steam wand. The Lelit steamer has power to spare, but I don’t know whether the stubby wand would work well in a big, deep milk pitcher. Also there are too many sharp angles and odd shapes on the wand (including a couple of o-rings—to help snap on an even-harder-to-clean “frothing aid”) for easy wiping. So for milk frothing, my learning curve is a bit steeper than expected. Or else I learn to like straight espressos rather than cappuccinos.

  3. Jess Davis says:

    Hey Laura. Please forgive the not-espresso-related nature of this post, but Peter had mentioned you might be interested in Rally-Obedience competitions. Cohen and I will be starting in this soon. If you’d like to speak on this more (and perhaps one day join us) feel free to email me. Cheers!

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