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Tag: espresso

The Importance of Proper Coffee Roasting, Or, Why Fresh Roasted Coffee, LLC, Stinks

by on Aug.16, 2012, under coffee, Kitchen, product review, Uncategorized

As readers know, I am a coffee enthusiast.  I roast my own beans and have several espresso machines, including one of the finest manual levers ever made, the Olympia Cremina. I sometimes like to purchase commercially roasted beans in order to gauge my roasting skills. I recently ran across a website purporting to offer roasted coffee beans at decent prices, Fresh Roasted Coffee, LLc, operating out of Selinsgrove, PA.  Since it wasn’t clear from the website whether the beans were actually fresh roasted (more than about two or three weeks and it becomes stale), I emailed the site and received a reply that the beans were shipped within 5 days of roasting, an acceptable amount. Based on that response, I ordered three bags of different varieties of coffee.  I should have noticed at the outset, though, that one of the varieties advertised, a Papua New Guinea single origin, was a “limited edition dark roast.”  This should have been a clue to me that the proprietors of this site didn’t know what they were doing.  You see, it’s a common misconception, fostered mostly by Starbucks, that dark roasts are for espresso, when in fact this is completely not the case.  Most high end espresso roasters roast much much lighter than a dark roast.  The reason for lighter roasting is that roasting too dark produces a monotonic flavor that masks all the subtleties of fine coffee beans, and this is most pronounced with espresso, which is an extremely demanding beverage.  The reason Starbucks overroasts their beans is because the beans basically will continue to taste the same over quite a long period of time, thus allowing transport and storage, and of course sacrificing the flavor as well.  This is why Starbucks is generally avoided by espresso aficionados, because their espresso is simply terrible.  Well, at any rate, when the beans arrived and I opened the bags, my heart sank. All three varieties were covered in oil, which is the primary sign of overroasting.  From their appearance, I suspected that none of these beans would be suitable for espresso, and I was correct; none of the varieties produced drinkable espresso.  I found this to be a valuable lesson:  don’t do business with unknown vendors who may or may not know what they are doing. Certainly I will never order from Fresh Roasted Coffee, LLC, again.  I did offer them the opportunity to refund my purchase price, but they ignored my email.

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Adventures In Coffee

by on Oct.26, 2009, under coffee, Kitchen, Uncategorized

Well, I have put off writing about my newest “hobby” until now, but I’m having so much fun with it I just have to share. I’ve always (ok, for a long time) liked good coffee, but until recently have confined myself to just strong drip coffee in some cheap coffeemaker, or an Aerobie Aeropress. However, one sometimes has to just let things take you wherever they do, and this resulted in a rather large amount of time spent reading about making fine espresso on the internets (here we have Coffeegeek and Home-Barista), shopping on fleabay and craigslist, and other activities typical for starting something new like this. Well, let’s get to the distilled wisdom first and then show some pictures.

Things I learned about espresso making:

1. The grinder is the most important element. Without this, no good espresso is possible. Here we are talking expensive burr grinders, not cheap “whirlybirds” or pretend Chinese knockoffs. The best grinders are those made for commercial applications and may actually cost upwards of $600-$800 new, or even more. (One can find something perfectly acceptable for much less…see below).
2. Freshly roasted beans are also essential, which means you need at least a source close to you, or fast shipping from somewhere else. I was surprised and pleased to discover that, as ignorant and backward as San Antonio is, there are at least two local roasters here. Of course, you can also actually roast your own beans, which, needless to say, I haven’t tried yet, but it’s probably coming. By “fresh” here, we mean used within 7-14 days of roasting. Old store-bought beans don’t cut it; that includes Starbucks.
3. There is such a thing as “barista technique.” We’re talking here about how fine the grind is (varies according to kind of bean and roast), how full the basket is, how hard to tamp down the grounds, the stirring technique (yes, actually stirring the ground beans in the basket), how long it takes the pressurized water to go through the filter, and a host of other issues. Even the quality of the water is considered important. The term “coffee geek” surely applies here, since only people like me would be interested in this stuff. However, the miracle of the internets is such that one can connect with all these folks and receive their collective knowledge at your fingertips.

It’s odd to realize that the machine is perhaps the least important element of making espresso, since you’d think it would be first. It apparently is quite true, though, that with a few modifications, a cheap Starbucks machine can produce pretty good espresso. Of course, as ones taste becomes more refined, perhaps that machine will turn out to be inadequate. Forum posts on this subject refer to a disease called “upgradeitis,” which can end up with people paying several thousand dollars (!) for equipment. Yikes! I’m fairly certain that I’m not really subject to this, beyond a certain point, and in fact, my purchases so far have been of the outstanding bang for the buck variety, which we’ll get to in a minute. One of the things that really got me interested in the whole business was trying really excellent espresso at a local shop or two. Apparently, though, there’s quite a bit of bad espresso lurking out there in retail establishments, so watch out. A good indication, in my eyes, is if the place doesn’t offer a “to-go” option with espresso (this indicates that the owners realize that you really can’t have good espresso to go; the warm ceramic cup is essential).

Since the grinder was the first priority, I started there, looking at used ones, reading reviews, and generally getting up to speed. Strangely, although there are some values in used commercial grinders (the Mazzer minis, Super Jollys, Macaps), there was a recent entrant for home use, the Baratza Vario, which grabbed my attention. The advantages of the Vario were the small counter footprint (some of the commercial grinders are quite tall and imposing), the little to no wastage of ground beans (some grinders are notorious for retaining grounds; I’m looking at you, Rancilio Rocky!), and the flexibility of being able to switch from espresso grind to drip to press (many commercial grinders are primarily for espresso and switching is tedious). On top of all these advantages, I found an outstanding deal on fleabay with a 10% off coupon and was able to acquire this appliance for $359 shipped to my door. It’s value upon arrival was obvious; I had previously been using a Starbucks Barista burr grinder ($50 during a clearance sale), which could produce adequate espresso grinds for my Barista espresso machine (also acquired during clearance sale for $112.50), but the difference in quality between the two was vast even to my inexperienced eyes. Here’s a picture of my new grinder:
grinder

With the grinder out of the way, it was time to begin looking at machines. As I mentioned, I had a Starbucks Barista (rebranded Saeco) which produced what I thought was decent espresso (at least until I started tasting the really good stuff at the roasters here), but I really felt that I couldn’t get the full expression without some modifications (taking apart the pressurized portafilter, and installing a PID), some of which would cost more than I paid for the machine in the first place. My alternative was to shop for a machine with more potential, without really understanding much of what I was looking for. As sometimes happens in these cases, I stumbled almost by accident onto what I now think was my perfect first “real” espresso machine: the La Pavoni Europiccola. This machine is a “lever” type, which means that the user controls the pressure through pulling down on the lever, along with the timing and just about every other variable that a semi-auto or automatic machine might do for you. It is said that if you can learn how to pull good shots on a lever, you can pull them on anything else. Of course, the drawback is that you have to spend the time playing with these variables, and learning, but this didn’t faze me; I like messing around with stuff like this, and it seemed like a good fit for the way I like to make espresso (no milk drinks, a couple of shots in the morning, no shots for company, etc.). If I’d had different espresso “needs,” I probably wouldn’t have considered this machine. The other thing I liked (hell, fell in love with) about this machine was it’s intrinsic beauty: it’s a work of kitchen art. Shiny chrome little hissing dragon…I loved it when I saw the ad for it on craigslist, and it really makes a nice addition to the kitchen. It also appealed to my practical side: these have been made for many many years, with little modifications, and parts are plentiful. Easy to work on, and so forth. Back to this particular machine; I feel like I practically got it for the salvage value: $175.00! Unbelievable. That same week, I watched another one go on fleabay for $425, so I think I got a nice deal on this. Here’s a picture of the Europiccola:

La Pavoni
I really can’t describe how much fun I’m having making espresso with this thing, except to say that several times now I’ve made espresso shots in the afternoon, something I’ve never done before. It is true, it does take some time to get familiar with this, but the potential is just enormous. Considering it’s something I pretty much do every day, it seems like money well spent.

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