Stuff about espresso that I wished I knew when I started out

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
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#1: Post by baldheadracing »

This is just my opinion. I'm sure plenty will disagree. This is just what I would have told myself when I was starting out, but updated as if I was starting out in June 2022. Your mileage may vary.

Where you should spend your time and resources, in order of importance:

i. The green ('raw') coffee.
Everything afterwards cannot improve the quality of the coffee. However, it does take quite a bit of knowledge to figure out what kinds of coffee that you prefer, and comprehend how to assess the quality of green coffee. For example, coffee traceable to a single farm is usually on the better side; but traditional Italian-style espresso is almost never made from such coffee - so if you like traditional Italian-style espresso, that advice doesn't apply. To make things simple, combine this point with the next item, the roast.

ii. The roast.
There are plenty of roasters that folks recommend here that you can try. Start pulling the coffee starting about ten days after the roast date on the bag, and, to start, only buy enough to last a month. If there is no roast date on the bag, then do not buy that coffee (and the "Best Before" date is not the roast date). The green coffee and the roast determines what kind of grinder you should buy, and how much you should budget for a grinder. As a general rule, the better the coffee and/or the lighter the roast: the more the grinder could cost.

iii. Your water.
Figure out what is needed to get your water to coffee standards - for taste - and espresso machine standards - so the machine will last. (The two standards can be different.)

iv. You.
People can learn how to drive a car without an instructor, or learn how to ski without taking lessons - and so, people can learn how to pull espresso by themselves - or they can spend a couple hours being instructed on how to pull decent shots. Another couple hours of instruction and they'll be able to properly steam milk and pour basic latte art.

Similarly, a common regret upon drinking expensive coffee is that the tasting notes on the bag might as well be in Latin. This can often be addressed by sensory training. (Sometimes it is an off roast, but again, you pretty much have to do some sensory training to know the taste characteristics of off roasts - and then you'll be shocked at how common mediocre commercial roasting can be, which can lead to a whole 'nother rabbit hole ...)

Training can be done online with a webcam and, for example, authorized SCA trainers (AST) are worldwide, so geography is no longer the limiting factor that it once was. It is your choice on how much frustration, wasted time, undrinkable espresso - and, if it matters to you, sad-looking latte art - that you want to endure.

v. The espresso grinder.
The combined points above determine the quality and type of grinder you should budget for. Almost every inexperienced beginner does not budget enough for the grinder - so many new setups have a great espresso machine and a mediocre grinder. That means mediocre espresso. In real estate, it is "location, location, location." In espresso - and coffee in general - it is "grinder, grinder, grinder."

vi. The espresso machine.
A sure sign of inexperience is thinking about machines first, when the machine is the last thing to consider or budget for. Spending more on a machine may not directly result in better coffee, but more expensive machines are usually easier to use, and usually easier to get consistent results.

This applies to manual machines as well. A Cafelat Robot or an EspressoForge are inexpensive relative to electric machines, but they're much more expensive than cheap manual machines.

Note that I am not saying that you can't get excellent espresso out of a $600 Gaggia or a $75 Handpresso. It just takes more skill and ability - and all too often modifications to the machine. How much is your time worth?

What would I buy today based on cup quality? (new, no mods, "out of the box")
Up to about an $8000 total budget, I would budget 50% on the grinder, and 50% on the espresso machine.

Appearance, noise, capacity, plumbing, size/available space, perceived reliability and quality, availability, local market pricing, workflow, and many other factors impact buying decisions, but I'm ignoring all of those factors.

Used machines and/or willingness to do mods is an entirely different matter.

The coffee that you drink has a huge impact on grinder and machine choice. However, when I was starting out I couldn't answer that question well enough, so here are my sweeping generalizations based on USA pricing in January 2023 June 2022:

Espresso Grinder:
Under $250: Orphan Espresso Lido (Lido Basic is $195 and the Lido OG is $285)
Under $500: Orphan Espresso Pharos v2.0 with two bench dogs
Under $1000: Niche Zero
Under $2000: Option-O Lagom P64 with SSP "High-Uniformity" burrs
Under $3000: P100 if exclusively light roasts; otherwise, Niche Zero and a P64 with SSP burrs appropriate for your coffee
Under $4000: Kafatek Flat MAX with Shuriken burrs appropriate for your coffee

Espresso machine:
Under $250: Flair Signature
Under $500: Cafelat Robot Barista
Under $1000: Crossland CC1 or Lelit Glenda PL41PLUST PID
Under $2000: Breville Dual Boiler
Under $3000: Bezzera Strega TOP
Under $4000: Decent DE1PRO

Super-automatic machine, "for a friend:"
Under $3000: Quick Mill Monza Deluxe Evo

What accessories do I want?
Accessories are like the gas gauge in your car. You can drive a car without a gas gauge and estimate how much gas is left in the tank with the odometer, but a gas gauge makes life a lot easier. So do some accessories. Others just end up in a drawer. I have a big drawer full of accessories that have proved to be essentially worthless. These are the ones that I use almost every day:

Tamper - the plastic tamper supplied with many machines can be a bit of a joke. Get a tamper whose diameter fits well with your tamp-through funnel. That's it.

Bottomless portafilter - essential for speeding up the learning process, giving real-time feedback, and easier than spouts to keep clean.

Scales/timer - Waterproof is preferable, but clear packing tape over a cheap scale's buttons is a lot less expensive. An integrated timer is nice, but so is a $5 digital kitchen timer.

Tamp-thru dosing funnel - pioneered these, but there are all kinds of ripoffs available now. A funnel is often needed to use a WDT tool.

WDT tool - is the best one that I have used so far. Again, there are all kinds of ripoffs available, and you can make your own for well under $5.

Baskets - the baskets supplied with machines used to be a bit of a joke but not so much these days. 'Even' a Silvia comes with a good double basket now. If - and only if - you drink light roasts, then a VST basket might be nice to have. Might.

No single baskets - just avoid these until you learn everything else. Note most single basket designs sold today deserve to go directly into that big drawer.

A final word: Maintenance, the forgotten M.
Unfortunately, many posts about machine problems appear to be caused by lack of regular and proper maintenance.

Today's cars need an oil change every year. That's all the maintenance that they need for the first five years/50,000 miles, whichever comes first. A 1960's car needs a chassis lubrication every 2000 miles; body lubrication, oil and oil filter change, and an air filter cleaning/oiling every 4000 miles; radiator fluid replaced and tire service twice a year; and a full tune-up, wheel bearing recap, u-joint repack, and brake adjustment every year; etc.

A typical espresso machine has most of its technology from the 1950's, and benefits from constant maintenance, just like a 1960's car - daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually.

Good luck!
-"Good quality brings happiness as you use it" - Nobuho Miya, Kamasada
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#2: Post by Randy G. »

baldheadracing wrote: This is just what I would have told myself when I was starting out...

Where you should spend your time and resources when I started out:
If I knew then what I know now...? I probably would have bought another motorcycle and saved a lot of money! :lol: - 2000-2023 - a good run, its time is done

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#3: Post by JB90068 »

Great post Craig. Very well thought out and written. Really not much that I would add as you have done a great job at covering my evolution.

What I have learned, is that almost is never good enough... This is true for equipment and beans.
Old baristas never die. They just become over extracted.

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#4: Post by romlee »

Saved and printed a copy. And wish I could have read this 40 years ago.
“Be curious, not judgemental.” T. Lasso

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#5: Post by eheffa »

Great Summary Thanks!

Are you interested in elaborating more detail as to what maintenance should be regularly performed on the espresso machine & grinder?

- evan

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#6: Post by Jeff »

What routine maintenance is needed will vary a lot based on the machine, the type of water in use, and the level of use. There are already many threads here discussing E61 boxes, both HX and DB, as well as some other machines.

Topics to search for include things like:

* Daily and weekly cleaning (screen, gasket, baskets, steam tip, ...)
* Backflushing
* Preventing mineral build-up in steam boiler
* Rebuild E61
* Lubricate E61
* Checking for scale
* Descaling
* Vacuum breaker spitting water
* Adjusting the OPV
* Insulators turned brown / cracked away

Machines like the SIlvia or Gaggia have their own peculiarities, as do other non-E61-style machines.

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#7: Post by eheffa »

Thanks Jeff.

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#8: Post by drgary »

This is a terrific thread, Craig. Thank you for your generosity in thinking it through and posting such a useful guide.
JB90068 wrote:What I have learned, is that almost is never good enough... This is true for equipment and beans.
I've been thinking quite the opposite. What I've learned is to "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Samuel Beckett), and not stop myself from enjoying the results of my home coffee roasting and brewing. For me, this makes "mistakes" a learning experience, like learning how to recognize when you've introduced roast defects and eliminating them. I've learned that adding cinnamon to an astringent, moderately baked coffee or some sweetener to one where sweetness was lost in the roast can make it very enjoyable so it's less of a worry.

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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#9: Post by JB90068 »

I was paraphrasing Onyx Coffee Labs marketing expression of "Never settle for good enough". It also speaks of how in the past, I've compromised and accepted inferior equipment or beans versus now where I would rather go without until I don't have to settle for "almosts". That's the standard I wish I had held true to earlier in life.
Old baristas never die. They just become over extracted.

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#10: Post by drgary »

Agreed. That's also where tasting coffee by an excellent roaster or brewed at a good cafe can help us up the standard for ourselves.

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!