The biggest problem with being a perfectionist is that it’s so bloody expensive. Here I am standing in front of my new hand-built Italian espresso machine, about to brew my seventh shot of strong coffee in the past 15 minutes. Don’t worry; I didn’t drink the other six they went down the drain. In some cases the espresso was too bitter; other times it lacked body and tasted flat. At least twice the espresso’s crema wasn’t thick enough, and I think the machine was too hot, because some of the shots tasted burnt. You see, I’m on a quest for the perfect cup of espresso, and if I have to use $10 worth of coffee beans this morning before I drink my first demitasse, so be it. At this moment, all I care about is extracting an elixir with exactly the right flavor to satisfy my taste buds. Espresso fanatics call it the “god shot.”
To understand how I reached this moment of caffeinated insanity, you have to know what I’ve gone through in the past two months. It all began when my three-year-old DeLonghi espresso machine died in November. The thing was on the verge of expiring for about six months. It leaked so much, it left a puddle of water on the counter every time we used it. Finally, while my wife was making a cappuccino one morning, it refused to produce steam for milk frothing. “It’s time we got a new machine,” I told her. “It shouldn’t cost too much.” Famous last words.
I started shopping on the Internet and ended up at a fantastic hobby site run by a Vancouver Web developer and self-described “Coffee Hound” named Mark Prince. The site (www.coffeekid.com) contained a wealth of information about espresso machines, including detailed reviews of various models. I was drawn to one particular section of the site devoted to the Rancilio Silvia, an absolutely gorgeous Italian machine with a satin-finish stainless steel body. Prince devotes page after page to why the Silvia is one of the best home espresso machines on the market. Then I checked the price at a local Rancilio dealer. Whoa! Six hundred and fifty bucks. Our last machine cost about $200.
Oh well, I told my skeptical wife, we might as well buy something that lasts. And so, not long after our DeLonghi gave up the ghost, we bought a Silvia. The first thing I noticed when pulling it out of the box was how heavy and sturdy it was. The Silvia has a bunch of other things going for it, too. Its large boiler, portafilter and grouphead (where the portafilter attaches to the machine) are all made of brass. This ensures even heat transfer and good temperature stability critical factors in the brewing process. Plus it looks like a million bucks sitting on the counter.
But how does it perform? I ground some coffee and pulled my first shot. Yuck. Definitely not what I expected. No body, little aroma, flat taste. In fact, not much better than the espresso produced by the DeLonghi, which was so bad it could only be consumed as part of a milk-based drink, such as a cappuccino or latte. I didn’t spend $650 to drink swill.
I sought advice from books, online sources and local experts, including Tony Wagner, an affable Brit who has been in the espresso business for 18 years and is a co-owner of Calgary’s Planet Coffee Roasters. Wagner listed all the variables involved in producing the perfect espresso. Besides owning a good machine, I needed to consider the blend and freshness of the coffee beans, the coarseness of the grind, the amount of coffee (14 grams for a double shot), how tightly it’s packed in the portafilter, the quality of the water and the cleanliness of the machine. “It’s a real science,” says Wagner, who has trained in Italy, the birthplace of espresso.
The freshness of the beans is perhaps the most critical factor. In their green, unroasted form, coffee beans are good for several years. But once roasted, they last about as long as a loaf of bread. The roasting process releases aromatic oils in the bean (that’s where the flavor comes from) and those oils begin to oxidize immediately. David Schomer, owner of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace coffee emporium, says roasted whole beans are good for a maximum of 10 days, and that’s assuming they’re packaged properly. Once ground, all of the oils inside the bean are exposed to air and the coffee goes stale in a matter of hours some say minutes. Those supermarket beans I was using? Stale. And the big specialty coffee chains aren’t much better in the freshness department, according to my sources. Their espresso blends are typically stale, and roasted so dark they give off a burnt, bitter taste.
Traditional Italian espresso is made with a medium roast, which has a deep chocolate brown color and little or no oils on the surface. The blend usually contains two species of bean: Robusta and Arabica. The former are grown at low elevations and have more caffeine than Arabica. They also have a higher fat content, which helps to produce a thick crema (pronounced “KRAYma”) the rich, cocoa-colored foam that is the hallmark of a quality espresso. Most Italian espresso blends are at least 10% to 20% Robusta.
Besides freshly roasted beans and a good machine, a quality grinder is essential. Wagner told me I needed a grinder that would turn the beans into a fine, even powder which, when tamped in the portafilter with as much force as I could muster, would allow me to extract a two-ounce shot in 20 to 25 seconds. If the grind is too coarse, the water doesn’t face enough resistance and fails to extract the soluble coffee oils. On the other hand, if it’s too fine, the espresso will be over-extracted and taste bitter. My old $49 Braun grinder wasn’t up to the job. After another round of research and comparison shopping, I visited Espuccino Imports in Calgary and bought a Nuova Simonelli, a commercial machine with a steel body, large flat grinding plates (called burrs) and a multitude of grind settings. Don’t ask how much it was. Suffice it to say, my wife is ready to kill me.
I’m not helping matters this morning as I turn our kitchen into a lab in my effort to figure out the proper grind and tamp to produce a “god shot.” The counter is covered with dirty cups, coffee stains and spent grinds. I’m testing some beans from Wagner’s shop and a pound of Schomer’s Espresso Dolce blend, which I’ve had shipped up from Seattle. I come pretty close on the eighth attempt with Wagner’s excellent Euro blend. The shot has all the right elements: a thick, long-lasting crema, a sweet aroma, a dense, velvety texture and a lingering aftertaste. Later, I pull an incredible shot using Schomer’s blend, which has a natural sweetness and a heavy gold crema.
In theory, now that I’ve figured out the correct grind and tamp, every shot should be close to perfect. But I soon discover that fluctuating humidity and the type of bean used will force me to constantly adjust my grind to obtain the perfect cup. That said, even my imperfect shots are far better than anything I’ve ever tasted at Starbucks or Second Cup.
So far, I’ve spent over a grand on coffee equipment, and it’s not over yet. I’m currently testing a $400 home roasting machine made by Swissmar. That’s right I plan to roast my own beans. And although the Silvia is a great little unit, its temperature controls aren’t ideal. I’ve already got my eye on a Pasquini Livia or Giotto. Those machines are equipped with heat exchangers, which means there’s no wait between brewing espresso and frothing milk for a cappuccino. (Steaming requires a much higher temperature, and since the Silvia has only one boiler, you have to wait for it to heat up.) The Livia and Giotto both sell in the $1,500 range. Of course, I could also use a trip to Italy to learn from a true barista. How ’bout it, boss?