Help, I just got a new espresso machine and my shots are horrible!
If you frequent the forums, you have no doubt seen this reoccurring topic. Dialing in a new machine for an inexperienced Barista can be a bit daunting, especially if you have a new grinder to accompany that shiny new espresso machine.
Many novice users start with too high an expectation and the incorrect assumption that if I purchase a quality espresso machine and grinder I can automatically make good espresso. Just because you own an espresso machine does not mean you can make espresso.
It takes time and a lot of practice to develop the basic Barista skills of grind, dose and tamp. In practice it sounds simple, grind your beans, dose them into the portafilter, mash it flat and make your cup. Unfortunately, this is deceivingly simplistic. It is more akin to an algebraic formula, each variable being dependent on the others. By changing one variable, you change the dynamics of the entire equation.
Too often a new Barista goes about the process in an over exuberant fashion changing the grind, dose, tamp, brew pressure, boiler pressure, coffee blend etc... all at the same time. The key to make one change at a time, observe the results and make another small change based on your observation.
I am the new owner of an Elektra A3 espresso machine. So I decided to document my dialing in of the machine and grind in hopes of helping others with the same process. My kit did not include a new grinder; I am still using my La Cimbali Jr. grinder so I already know how my grinder will respond to a change.
I loaded up the grinder with some two week+ old coffee; this is well beyond its prime but should still have enough serviceable life in it to get started. I set my grinder on 4.5 which I knew was too coarse. These are the frightening results.
Shot one, the grinder set at 4.5, 50 pound tamp, and 20 gram dose in the stock double basket. As you can see, 20 grams was too much, the machine was choked and the extraction barely started. The pucks surface was grinding against the shower screen due to the over dosed basket.
Shot two. I kept the grind and tamp the same and reduced the dose to 18 grams. My scale was jumping between 18 and 19 grams so this was a heavy 18 gram dose. I do have to say that having read Dan's review on the A3, I already knew it did not respond well to overdosing.
Let me also add that this dose did not make heavy contact with the shower screen but was very, very close. To check that, dose and tamp your portafilter then lock it into the group. Then remove the portafilter. If you can see even the lightest impression of a screw head or other parts of the shower screen, you are still overdosed. This dose was just touching on the outer edges of the puck.
You may want to stand back from your computer for this one. You don't want to get sprayed in the eye.
Boy, that one was nasty, but we now know what happens when we change the dose from 20, to 18+ grams. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see several pinholes in the puck, those are the sources of the channeling.
Shot three. I kept the grind and tamp the same as shots one and two but further reduced the dose to 17 grams. The headspace was just about right on this one. The massive channeling was reduced although the shot was way too fast and I still had donut extractions. The perimeter of the basket starts first but we have a slow spot in the center of the basket.
After these three shots we have learned that the A3 does not like to be overdosed. With the given grind and tamp, the 17 gram dose provided adequate headspace and the best extraction of the three. The next step is to fine up the grind one notch in an attempt to slow the extraction. I start with a dose of 18 grams while keeping the distribution and tamp the same. Why go back to 18 grams? As I stated above, all of these variables are dependent on each other. Since we changed the grind, the dose may have been effected as well. So I am bracketing the extraction again to see what effect it has.
The grinder is now set at 4.25, the dose is 18 grams and the distribution and tamp remain the same. The extraction was better than the original 18 gram dose. The shot starts more even but still favors the front of the basket. It develops nicely but half way through the shot we see signs of channeling, then suddenly the flow runs fast and blond.
For the fifth shot I retain the 4.25 grind setting and down dose to 17 grams, once again keeping the distribution and tamp the same. This time the shot starts more abrupt and flows faster. We still have some channeling, the 18 gram dose worked best with the finer grind.
So after 5 shots what have we learned. The A3 does not like to be over dosed. The 17 and 18 gram dose worked best depending on the grind that was used. We also learned that two week old beans are not going to produce an acceptable shot. So for those of you that spend $2000 for you kit and decide to use cheap grocery store beans to dial in your machine, you are wasting your time. If two week old beans are too stale to produce a good shot, what do you think two month old beans will do. Please, do yourself a favor and invest in two pounds of good beans to learn with. We also discovered that my tamp favors the front of the basket. That has nothing to do with the machine or grinder, but a flaw in the Barista's (my) technique.
More to come.