Newbie frustrations (a year and a half in)

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks.
NorthNYMark

#1: Post by NorthNYMark »

Hi, everyone. This is my first post after lurking for around a year and a half (which is more-or-less the same time I've had my first serious espresso machine and grinder (Lelit Mara PL26S-T and Ceado E37J). Before that, I'd only used a Krups steam toy and dreamed of being able to make real espresso. Around the time I bought the machines, I read up as much (and watched as many videos) as I could on pretty much all the key aspects of home espresso making (and of course, the tutorials on this site are great). Still, I found the number of things I had to worry about to be almost overwhelming at first--water recipes, dosage and grind, tamping technique, temperature management, problems with single dosing (in grinders like mine), machine maintenance, sourcing fresh beans, milk steaming, etc. etc. It was also the case that a series of family emergencies kept me from following up on my espresso education more throughout most of this period, so I got to a certain level of knowledge and then kind of stalled, and am now trying to catch up again.

Still, I've been able to enjoy some truly delicious espressos and cappuccinos, though I'm never sure how close I am to getting the best out of my beans and equipment. The biggest sources of frustration for me at this point have revolved around puck preparation, as it sometimes seems like no matter what techniques I try, it's a roll of the dice as to whether or not I get channeling with my naked portafilter. I've tried WDT (sort of--just used a toothpick in the portafilter), but it didn't seem to help. I also bought one of those levelers, but that didn't help either. I recently had some success with much harder tamps (like full strength), but even that wasn't entirely consistent and definitely seemed to go against common wisdom. One problem with tamping is that every expert recommends something a little different. My current hypothesis is that maybe my twist was the problem, and am now trying a somewhat lighter tamp with a no-pressure twist at the end just for polishing. We'll see. I also am considering ordering a 58.4 mm tamper, as I wonder if side channeling is a result of my 58 mm tamper not fully reaching the edges of the puck.

Since I single-dose (as a single person who only has two double espressos a day, I don't have any other choice), I've decided to buy a Niche Zero grinder, thinking that maybe my grinder not being designed for single dosing is contributing to the problem.

I also just bit the bullet this very night and ordered Eric's thermometer, mainly because I just can't see see or hear the water dance as clearly as on the videos--I can certainly detect a difference over 30 seconds, but it feels like a gradual change rather than a sudden one (as the bubbles at the top seem to slowly dissipate), so I don't know when to start counting the three seconds--and I worry that some of my afternoon shots (after my machine has been idling for several hours) might be burnt at least some of the time.

Finally, I just realized that I may have been doing my water recipe wrong. I was following what I thought were Dr. Pavlis's suggestions of using baking soda with distilled water--but I see now that the amount of baking soda I was using was the amount he specified for potassium bicarbonate (which I don't think is sold anywhere locally), and I apparently should have been using four-to-five times the amount of baking soda. I hope I haven't damaged my equipment by using overly pure water. And I also just realized that I'm apparently way overdue to replace the shower screen.

Anyway, just expressing a combination of gratitude for all the knowledge available in this forum along with a certain amount of frustration at all the moving parts we seem to have to juggle to do this even remotely competently!

Mark

pcrussell50

#2: Post by pcrussell50 »

Couple thoughts:

1) The real prep comes way before you get to the the tamper, which is the final step
When in doubt, go back to the basics... longhand prep: RDT>grind into separate vessel>stir/whisk/ mix thoroughly>transfer via funnel to portafilter>vertical taps to settle, WDT with a dissecting needle to create a level pile>use grooming tool set to tamping depth>tamp (optional) as proof that your grooming depth was right. Even my Monolith does better with this routine than with a more shortcut version.

Note all the steps that came before tamping

2) Pavlis water is very non-critical. 50-100mg/l of potassium bicarbonate. Same for sodium bicarbonate or a little less. Pharmaceutical precision not needed here. By adding these things to distilled water you have not damaged your machine. You can be confident of that. As you get more advanced you can look at adding back some magnesium (in the form of Epsom salts), but that can increase scale potential, so be sure you know what you are doing before you go down that path.

3) My primary machine is a what you set is what you get, walk up and pull affair. But I also have levers where you have to perform your temperature management rituals properly, so I know where you're coming from. And I use thermometry for those machines as an aid/crutch. Good move IMHO on the Eric's. Use it, take notes, and get dialed into the vibe of your machine.

-Peter
LMWDP #553

NorthNYMark

#3: Post by NorthNYMark » replying to pcrussell50 »

Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Peter. This is very helpful. It looks like I'll need to be acquiring more equipment for the distribution process: an appropriate vessel, an appropriate funnel, a dissecting needle (had to look up what that was). The Niche Zero on order will come with a metal cup designed for this purpose (and it supposedly fits onto a 58mm portafilter, which I guess should eliminate the need for the funnel). I will definitely give this process a try (though the Niche Zero site advises against RDT for that grinder, so I will skip that part).

Now I am extra confused about the Pavlis water recipe. What you've written is exactly what I originally remember reading, But a couple of days ago I read him posting (in a thread about the Elektra lever machine) that with potassium bicarbonate the recipe is .1 g per liter, but with sodium bicarbonate (which is what I've been using) is should be .4-to-.75 g per liter, because (he explained) sodium bicarbonate has a lower molecular weight. So I was worried that the water I've been using (with the .1 g per liter ratio) was too pure, maybe like using distilled, which I've heard is bad for machines. But now you are saying that is should be .1 g per liter or less for sodium bicarbonate. So now I wonder if I should empty the reservoir I just filled with the higher ratio of baking soda.

Thanks again for your help!

Mark

NorthNYMark

#4: Post by NorthNYMark »

As a follow-up on that last post, I did a bit more searching on the water recipe question, and I see that you made a very clear post on the subject. Clearly I misread the post I mentioned from Dr. Pavlis. So now I see that the amount of baking soda should have been half what I was using, though apparently it's still OK to have used that much. I will dump out the stronger concentration I just added. What I've been doing is adding approximately a gram of baking soda into a one liter container I've filled with distilled water. Then I pour from there into a 1 liter measuring cup up to the 1/10th mark, and then switch to pure distilled water to fill up to the one liter mark (putting the rest of the baking soda liter into the refrigerator for subsequent fills). it sounds like the easiest way to halve the ratio would be to use a 2 liter bottle instead of a 1 liter bottle for the first step.

Thanks again for the clarification!

Mark

pcrussell50

#5: Post by pcrussell50 »

Beat me to it. But I think your water situation is well in hand. There may be some subtleties to taste with a lot of baking soda vs a little or potassium bicarbonate vs baking soda. But you can work on those little things once you have the big stuff sorted:

1) know the temperatures you are working with, AND know how to achieve a temperature you want if you need to make a change.

2) try "longhand" puck prep for a good while before rolling back to something shorter, and then only do it methodically so you are sure it's not harming your cup quality. Me, I just do all of it, all the time. All machines, all grinders. For 3-6 shots a day it's little extra bother.

Obviously you don't want to run crook of what Niche says about RDT... but I am curious if they give a reason. If they are worried about rusting the burrs, I'd bet the oils in the coffee are already pretty good at protecting against that.

Keep us informed of your progress. And there's nothing magic about a dissecting/teasing needle. You could use a piece of wire. Pretty much anything that feels right to stir the pile you just dumped into the portafilter, flat and even. Teasing needles are mostly handy and affordable and about the right thickness for the job.

-Peter
LMWDP #553

NorthNYMark

#6: Post by NorthNYMark » replying to pcrussell50 »

It looks like the warning about not using RDT wasn't coming from the Niche site, but from this reviewer, who seems to be very knowledgable about the device, getting into a level of detail well beyond that of most instructional videos. He claims that wetting the beans would interfere with the aspects of the machine designed to reduce retention. He makes these claims beginning at 15:50 in this video (but mistakenly refers to RDT as WDT): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4lMoJqp-Rw

Thanks so much for your guidance! And about WDT, I've definitely found that neither a toothpick nor a longish metal skewer I have seem to work well for that purpose at all--they do anything but make the grounds flat and even in the portafilter, instead producing deep furrows that I then have to smooth out in other ways. I don't seem to have anything thin and wiry at hand (not even paperclips, which others have mentioned as good substitutes), but I'm hoping I can find a dissection needle at Walmart, as I dislike ordering small things like that online (but may have to in this case).

def
Supporter ♡

#7: Post by def »

pcrussell50 wrote: ...
>grind into separate vessel> ...
Is there a significant benefit to this step? I have always ground directly into the basket, so I honestly do not know how this might improve my prep. Thanks.

pcrussell50

#8: Post by pcrussell50 »

def wrote:Is there a significant benefit to this step? I have always ground directly into the basket, so I honestly do not know how this might improve my prep. Thanks.
If you are completely and utterly certain you don't need it then you can probably get way with skipping that step with minimal consequence. Me? With my new grinder, doing the full "longhand" prep made a HUGE difference. See here:
Bloke from another thread:Single dosing generates uneven grind particles by nature, ie the coffee ground during the first half of the grind will be coarser than the later half, presumably due to varying bean weight. The purpose of WDT in this context is to ensure the coffee particles are blended well to provide an even puck density.
When I switched to Monolith, it was more difficult to get the degree of blending I needed in the portafilter. It was easier to get it in a separate vessel.

-Peter
LMWDP #553

def
Supporter ♡

#9: Post by def »

Makes sense. Thank you, I will try it for a week and see what it does for me.

pcrussell50

#10: Post by pcrussell50 » replying to def »

Sounds like you have the same grinder I have, too. One of my other mates also with a FLatSSP, grinds into an LWW blind tumbler and shakes then stirs, before dropping into his portafilter. I just whisk mine good and well.

-Peter
LMWDP #553