All posts by Sam

The Reluctant Barista: Milk Frothing Madness

Milk Frothing TechniqueHow many how-to-froth-milk videos have you watched? They make it look so easy! While my espresso shots are really improving, I still have a hard time getting milk to the right consistency for a perfect latte. My lack of consistent consistency makes me a little grumpy…even mad. If frothing milk makes you grumpy too, then follow along as I try to de-mystify microfoam. It is time for FROTHING MADNESS!

First things first, while you can use the words froth and foam interchangeably, what we are after is the ever elusive microfoam. The manner in which milk is heated produces different results. Microfoam is smooth and velvety with a texture almost like wet paint because very tiny bubbles are incorporated evenly throughout the liquid. The foam I most often produce is heated milk with a bubbly volcano of erupted meringue dolloped on top. This is not microfoam.

The more you practice on one home espresso machine, the more you get to know the timing involved. This is one of my problems. I froth milk on different machines. Teri in customer service tried to console me. She said, “just when you thought you had steaming down on one machine, you try another machine and it steams totally different! …or someone changes your steam tip from a two-hole to a four-hole!” (Which totally happens around here but probably doesn’t happen at your house.)

You are probably familiar with the basics of milk frothing:

  • Start with a chilled stainless steel milk frothing pitcher and cold milk.
  • Submerge the steam wand, start to froth, then lower the pitcher until just the steam tip is submerged. The milk should move in a circular pattern.
  • Plunge the wand lower into the pitcher and continue to roll the milk.
  • Stop at your desired temperature.

While this sounds well and good, let’s explore how this works in real-life situations with three very different home espresso machines. Armed with some additional tricks from my barista friends, we can learn together!

Rocket EvoluzioneRocket Giotto EvoluzioneA heat exchanger espresso machine with a large 60oz boiler

Espresso machine repair tech, Bryan, gave me some great advice. First, whole milk froths best. Second, on a larger espresso machine like this one, plunge the wand a few seconds sooner than you think it will take. It only took 35 seconds to froth 6 ounces of milk to 165F. I found this out the hard way because at 40 seconds it was up to 170F and the milk smelled scalded. Because it happens so fast, it is hard to make adjustments. I grabbed a gallon of milk and kept trying until I got it just right.

Breville InfuserBreville InfuserA home espresso machine with a thermoblock

Matthew Hodson, a Seattle-area professional barista, shared this via Twitter “Experiment to find the spot where the milk and foam spin in a whirlpool and integrate. Only aerate briefly (count 1,2,3 quickly) and then spend the rest of the time integrating with the whirlpool.” It took 1:15 to get 6 ounces of milk to 165F. This was enough time to experiment with different adjustments. With some extra time and careful attention spent tilting and pivoting the frothing pitcher around the steam wand, this technique produced good results.

Saeco Via VeneziaSaeco Via VeneziaA single boiler with less than 8oz capacity

To get quality milk frothing from a smaller espresso machine requires every trick in the book. Make sure the espresso machine is on and pre-heated. Clear the steam wand (or in this case the panarello) into the drip tray until it is all steam with no water. Note where the air intake hole is on the panarello sleeve and keep it even with the level of the milk in the pitcher, not above or below. Froth one drink at a time, in this case 6 ounces took 1 minute to steam but was still very bubbly.

Lastly, Miranda in customer service told me you can try to “fix” milk frothing madness by softly tapping the frothing pitcher on the counter and swirling it in a circle repeatedly to try to eliminate big bubbles and incorporate the little bubbles back into the mix. Don’t try to re-heat or re-froth the milk. When all else fails keep these two important adages in mind,
1) Don’t cry over spilt milk
2) Tis a lesson you should heed, If at first you don’t succeed, Try try again.

Rocket Espresso Steam Tips

What’s Your Signature Espresso Drink? Episode Two: The Puristas

Purista Blog - Coffee RoasterWe talk a lot about coffee experimentation here at SCG. The great thing about being a coffee lover is that there is always something new to learn. Heck, we will try any espresso drink and any coffee brewing method at least once and we love to share our knowledge.

Recently, we met a couple who have taken our raison d’être ’How do you make great coffee at home?’ to new heights of exploration. They have even started to roast their own coffee beans at home! When passion and inquisitive minds collide … meet the bloggers behind Purista.

Home Roasters

David and Mae have a beautiful coffee review blog. In researching their coffee reviews they found ‘one green coffee can become any multitude of different roasts.’ Many coffee lovers would simply compare these final roasts but David and Mae were intrigued by the whole process. ‘In order to more fully explore coffee, and to provide ourselves with even more education and understanding, we decided to begin roasting coffee at home. We are still in the early stages of our roasting setup, and are learning new things with every roast.’

Ethiopia Aramo

David and Mae’s Recipe for Success

‘We recently adopted a back-to-basics mentality with our roasting. Per the suggestion of a member of the Sweet Maria’s coffee roasting community, we now roast in the following manner:

  • Turn on the roaster
  • Add just enough coffee to stop the rotation of the mass of coffee
  • Watch. Smell. Listen.

This has already proven so much better than how we were doing it before. Our roasts are now closer to seven minutes, rather than the four minutes we were getting before for the same roast level. This translates to a more developed profile — more complex aromas, flavors, finish.’

Signature Drink: Pomegranate Molasses Affogato

Here is the background and step by step recipe with pictures from David and Mae for this luscious and festive holiday treat. The volume yields 4 drinks total.

‘We wanted to create a signature drink that embodies the season, but keeps our Purista ideals in tact. What we mean by that is that we want the coffee to be the focal point and any additions secondary and complementary. Since we’re also proponents for taking the time to make something well, the recipe involves a bit of work.
Pomegranate Molasses Affogato

Ingredients

  • 1 pint Vanilla ice cream; chocolate ice cream would be a solid choice as well
  • 4 double shots Espresso
  • 8 oz 100% Pomegranate juice (POM makes a bottle just the right size)
  • 1 tbsp Agave sweetener (you can use cane sugar or honey instead)

Directions

We’ll walk you through the pomegranate molasses reduction before the assembly of the drinks. This takes some time, and attentiveness, but you can make it ahead of time and store it in a container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the pomegranate juice and agave sweetener and reduce on a medium-low heat. The liquid should simmer within about ten minutes. After ten minutes check it about every four minutes. In twenty eight to thirty minutes, the liquid should have reduced by more than half and coat a spoon ever so slightly, like syrup, when stirred. Don’t let it get too thick, as it will thicken a bit more as it cools, and for this drink we want it to be about the same consistency as the espresso.
  2. Remove from heat and let it cool about five minutes before pouring it into a suitable container. If you’re doing it ahead of time you can just put it in the refrigerator. If you need to use it relatively soon, pop it in the freezer for a few minutes.

And now it’s time for assembly …

Pomegranate Molasses Affogato

  1. Place 1/2 cup ice cream into 4 small cups or bowls. For reference, our INKER cups are 6 ounces. Place in the freezer until the espresso is prepared.
  2. Pull a double shot of espresso for each serving.
  3. Take the ice cream out of the freezer and pour a fresh double shot over each serving, followed by a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses.

Note the way that the syrup and espresso seamlessly blend together in texture. Then take note of the tartly sweet play on the coffee’s own acidity accentuated and complemented by the pomegranate. The ice cream is just a carrier vessel, and a balancing component that tames the intense flavors just enough, and shocks the coffee into a submissive temperature. This is our treat of the season, and since we can’t have you in our own living room, we send this decadence off to yours. Happy holidays!’

Many thanks to David and Mae. If you would like to share the recipe for your signature drink, send us an email!

How Did You Get That Awesome Coffee Job?

Joseph Robertson - Coffee Lovers MagWho: Joseph Robertson

Where: Online Publisher, Coffee Lovers Magazine

You have an interesting coffee job! How long has Coffee Lovers Magazine been around?

I launched Coffee Lovers Magazine December 9th, 2012. Prior to that I was a coffee marketing consultant. I realized there’s a lot of people out there who are passionate about coffee, but who haven’t had the pleasure of diving deeply into the world of coffee.

Where does one find Coffee Lovers Magazine?

Coffee Lovers Magazine is currently digital, available on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch via iTunes. The magazine will soon be available on Android as well — Kindle is also on the horizon. One can simply go to http://www.coffeeloversmag.com/theMagazine

How often does the magazine come out?

Coffee Lovers Magazine is a monthly publication. I also tend to publish extra subscriber-only bonuses in between the primary publications. The digital magazine platform allows for a lot of flexibility and variety in what can be delivered. It’s really more than a traditional ‘magazine.’ We simply use that term because it is easy to relate with the idea of a ‘magazine.’  It is a periodical publication, but with interactive elements giving a much greater ability to connect people with ideas and other people.

How did you get so into coffee?

I remember getting into coffee through Starbucks, and at a certain point thinking to myself, ‘I should really check out these smaller cafes and see what this is all about.’ The only problem was I had no idea where to start. I think that it can be intimidating to approach an independent cafe when you honestly don’t know what you want (and this isn’t your fault). I would find myself going to a new cafe (and I still do this sometimes), approaching the counter and when the barista says, ‘what can I get you?’ my response would usually be ‘Uhhhhhhhh…uhhhhh…errr……..coffee?’

I think there’s a great desire for something more fulfilling than simply a sugary latte. I also know that the industry of coffee is so complex, with so many people who care so much about this thing that I think people deserve to understand the complexity of the experience that they are having.
Coffee Lovers Magazine
That’s also what it really comes down to — the experience of coffee. I had this realization shortly before creating the magazine: Coffee is not about coffee; it’s about the experience that you (the consumer) get with your coffee. It’s about taking that ‘coffee break’ with your co-workers, or meeting with friends, or stopping by for a morning cup. Coffee is a broad experience shared by people of many cultures around the world — there is great connection to be had in this simple drink. No matter what it may be, whether you prefer a latte loaded with milk and sugar, or if you prefer carefully prepared single origin espresso, I believe that our experience with coffee can only be made better by getting a deeper understanding of where the coffee comes from, and what it means to properly care for and handle this marvelous product.

I can have a drink and think, ‘hey, this roaster really loves what they are doing, they can be proud of this’ and I think that’s awesome. Just recently I visited Sterling Roasters in Portland; I had a cappuccino with their most recent espresso blend, and it tasted exactly like a hot cocoa (with nothing added!). That they can take these green coffee seeds, roast them, and prepare them in a way to basically give me a rich hot cocoa without dumping syrup and sugar into a drink — that is awesome. That is truly enjoying and understanding the full experience of coffee.

What’s your favorite coffee prep at home?

I have been preparing AeroPress for quite some time, but I’m actually drifting back to French press. If I had a proper espresso machine, I imagine I would enjoy espresso and occasionally a cappuccino. I typically just prefer to brew my coffee and enjoy it without adding anything.

What’s your favorite drink order when you visit cafes?

If it’s a new cafe I get either an espresso or cappuccino. I think the way a cafe prepares its espresso is really telling of the quality of that cafe. A place with passionate and engaged baristas who serve an obviously well prepared cup is a great place. There’s a tendency in Seattle to serve dark roasts. I would say Starbucks has created that consumer preference. If the coffee has been roasted too dark and burned, I’m going to taste it. Then I’ll know that I probably won’t enjoy the rest of their coffee menu.

For places that I frequent, it depends on my mood. If I’m planning to sit for long, I will order a brewed cup. At Milstead & Co., for example, I usually order an AeroPress. At Ballard Coffee Works, I like to get a siphon. Or, my decision will be based on which coffee sounds best (maybe the coffee on espresso sounds more appealing than the one on brew).

Are you or have you ever been a professional barista?

Nope!

In your opinion, what makes a good…Coffee…Cafe…Roaster…Barista?

To all of the above: Passion and love for what you do.

If you could teach people one thing about coffee, what would it be?

Coffee drinks with nothing added (sugar, flavor, etc.) can be the most amazing experiences in the world when prepared right — give yourself the opportunity to have your world changed. Try new things. Enjoy the experience of exploring coffee.

The Reluctant Barista: What’s Up With Portafilters?

Saeco Via Venezia portafilter optionsFrom bean to cup, making espresso at home is poetry in motion. Nothing captures the essence of espresso better than a close up view of a streaming bottomless portafilter — a portafilter designed without spouts so that the bottom of the filter basket is visible. Bottomless, pressurized, non-pressurized … though they do the same job, they each do it a little differently. To get the most out of any espresso machine, let’s get to know the portafilter a little better.

First off, what exactly is a portafilter? Some people call just the handle portion portafilter and some people call the handle and filter basket combination portafilter. Some people also call it a portaholder, and that is a little weird, but we understand what you mean. Once the filter basket is filled with ground coffee, the portafilter can be locked into place inside the brew head of your traditional espresso machine. Locked and loaded! Now you are ready to pull espresso shots … If it were only that easy!

To illustrate the differences between types of portafilters, I chose the Saeco Via Venezia. It is a semi-automatic home espresso machine that comes with a pressurized portafilter. There is also a non-pressurized portafilter and bottomless portafilter upgrade available for it, so it makes a good example of how each portafilter works to create a different espresso experience. All three portafilters use the original included double filter basket. Here’s how they compare:

Saeco Via Venezia pressurized portafilterPressurized – The espresso flow is greatly restricted. When the pressure from the boiler combines with an added restriction, it literally spits the coffee out. The restrictive design can be part of the filter basket, part of the portafilter (the Via Venezia uses an additional gasket) or a spring between these two pieces.

Pressurized portafilters often come standard on entry-level espresso machines because they are easier to use for beginners. The coffee doesn’t have to be perfectly fresh, the size of the grind can have a little bit more variation and tamping is not necessary in most cases.

In exchange for this ease of use, the cleanup is messier because the leftover puck is wetter. It is hard to explain the taste difference but a pressurized shot will taste a little bland and homogenous when compared with a non-pressurized espresso shot. The crema produced is mainly a function of extra pressure and not an indicator of coffee freshness. It adds to the visual appeal but not the taste. However, if you are making milk-based drinks you will probably not notice these small differences.

Saeco Via Venezia non-pressurized portafilter upgradeNon-Pressurized – The 15 bar pressure from an espresso machine forces the water and steam through the filter basket. A good espresso extraction needs freshly ground coffee with a consistent particle size. It is also important to tamp evenly with the right amount of pressure so that water flows through in a uniform manner. If espresso flows out one side more than the other, it will still taste okay, but it might have had the potential to taste better with a more even tamp, or a more accurate dosage, or more consistently ground coffee. This is the point where you can seriously start to geek out about your espresso-making methodology!

Non-Pressurized portafilters are for home baristas ready for the challenge to manage variables manually. If you have an interest in crafting delicious espresso, you need a non-pressurized portafilter. This is especially true if you drink espresso, Americano coffee or a Cafe Macchiato. These are drinks where the character of the espresso is front and center compared to a latte or cappuccino where the espresso takes a backseat to ten ounces of milky goodness.

Bottomless – (Sometimes called a naked portafilter.) Usually, the spouts on the bottom of the portafilter direct the coffee as it streams out. Not so with a bottomless portafilter. As a learning tool for a home barista, the bottomless portafilter is a great way to check your progress. Saeco Via Venezia bottomless portafilterThe term ‘channeling’ refers to water that leaks through the puck unevenly due to poor distribution of grounds. Other reasons these crevasses occur can be due to an inconsistent grind, incorrect dosage or an uneven tamp. Any small error will result in random spurts and a messy espresso extraction with a bottomless portafilter. The barista can then take steps to fix one or more of these variables in the hopes of producing a cleaner (and better tasting!) shot.

Some say a bottomless portafilter will make a hotter shot since the espresso does not come into contact with a metal spout. This temperature difference is pretty negligible. It is easier to brew directly into a demitasse and it is easier to keep clean. But the main reason to use a bottomless portafilter is the visual cues it offers that can lead you to micro adjustments in timing, tamping and measurement.

About Filter Baskets – An E61 filter basket is 58mm across while the Via Venezia filter basket is 53mm across and DeLonghi tends to run about 51mm across. Sizes, shapes and hole patterns vary by manufacturer. There is no consensus on whether bigger is better or which proprietary hole pattern is better. The often frustrating thing for home baristas to keep in mind is that most portafilters and filter baskets are not interchangeable between brands. Even if they share the same size diameter, their profile shape will prevent a universal fit in the portafilter or brew head configuration of a different model espresso machine. When looking for a replacement or upgrade, double check compatibility first!

Along with the functional differences listed above, some portafilters are heavier, some are lighter weight and some may feel more balanced in your hand. The tactile sensation of the portafilter is important too. Will the portafilter be ergonomic for all household users? These are seemingly small details to consider when evaluating an espresso machine purchase but it will be part of your daily routine for years to come, so it’s best to shake hands and get to know your portafilter first!

Barista Snapshot: Bethany at The Fresh Pot

bethany_hargroveWho: Bethany Hargrove, Barista

Where: The Fresh Pot, Portland, Oregon

We met you at the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship Open in Seattle last month. What’s it like competing?

Full disclosure: I only started competing this year. My first throwdown was last July. Competing is honestly kind of weird. It’s not really a replication of how latte art works in the cafe environment, but it’s so much fun. I love the chance to jam with other coffee people, talk (really enthusiastically) about great coffees and latte art techniques and espressos. Eighty percent of why I love competing is to hang out with coffee folks. The other twenty percent is, well, who wouldn’t love a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament but with milk and espresso?

What was the first coffee drink you remember tasting?

The only coffee in my house as a kid was swill (sorry dad,) so I didn’t really try coffee when I was young. I remember drinking sugary/milky drinks from Dutch Bros drive-throughs with my sister, but I didn’t really start drinking coffee in earnest until I started working with it in 2010.

What do you drink now at home?

When I’m just brewing for myself, I usually use a Kalita Wave with whichever delectable coffee I happen to have at the time (I’m particularly fond of juicy or citrusy coffees). If I’m sharing with my roommate or friends, the Chemex is my standby. I also have an AeroPress and a French press on hand in case the mood should strike me.

What do you drink at work, if different?

Everything! I love espresso. You can’t get more beautiful than the purity of a well extracted shot. But I also drink cappucinos, Americanos, pour overs, drip, you get the idea. Whatever fits my mood!

What’s cool about the Portland coffee scene?

In brief, the people. Portland has such a huge diversity of people in the coffee scene, from guys who’ve been slinging shots at Stumptown for a decade, to folks who’ve transplanted here from cities without good coffee for the sake of the coffee, to people who’ve been building relationships with coffee farmers, and everyone in between. Most people are really fun to hang out with, and obsessed with quality. I’m honored to be a part of such a brilliant community, honestly.

What are your thoughts on quality versus customer service skills?

As a friendly barista in Portland, a town (apparently) famed for bad customer service, I have encountered two very distinct attitudes: One, people assume that if someone is friendly, they don’t know how to make fantastic coffee; and two, people will avoid somewhere they perceive as snobby, willingly sacrificing quality for friendlier service. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for baristas to be friendly and skilled! Even the most delicious espresso in the world isn’t any fun if the barista isn’t willing to talk to you about it, and even the friendliest cafe experience in the world is no fun unless the espresso is delicious. And really, I consider my customer service skills to be equally as valuable as my coffee skills. Knowing how to read people and give them exactly the level of service they need and expect is hard, and just as much of an art as extracting delicious espresso.

Do you ever judge people by the drink they order?

I try really hard not to, but when someone orders a decaf at 9am…

If you could teach people one thing about coffee (or latte art), what would it be?

It’s worth it to invest some money in your coffee experiences — both beans and gear! But don’t necessarily assume that more expensive always equals better. Talk to your baristas, and your roaster if possible. Find out what’s delicious, and get a good home brewing set up! It’s worth every single penny.

The Fresh Pot in Portland, Oregon has three locations and if you’re lucky you will run into Bethany at one of them. She’s been pulling shots with them for a year and a half. Bethany can also be found competing in organized latte art competitions around the Northwest.

photos by Megan O'Connell

photos by Megan O’Connell

 

The Reluctant Barista: How to Choose an Espresso Machine

As luck would have it, six years ago this holiday season I was gifted with an entry-level semi-automatic Breville espresso machine. This meant I did not have to select my own home espresso machine or, as Kat likes to call the process, Choose Your Own Adventure. My little dude is still chugging along with its tiny thermoblock and I am both excited and dreading the day I need to pick out the replacement.

Are you in the same boat? The number of manufacturers, models and variations on variations of home espresso machines can be overwhelming. Pour a cup of coffee, sit back and let’s ponder a few questions to set you on the right path for a successful adventure in espresso. This is an exercise in narrowing down available options until you are left with a manageable few to consider. Set aside budget (for the moment) and let’s think about who will use the espresso machine:

Do you have an interest in hand-crafting espresso?

Yes, I want to learn to make drinks myself No, I just want to drink espresso beverages
A semi-automatic espresso machine allows you to decide the dosage and the shot time which you can adjust to enhance the extraction of different styles of coffee. You have the time, counter space and additional equipment (grinder, tools, etc) to do-it-yourself. A superautomatic espresso machine makes life easier. There is less customization possible but shot consistency makes up for it. You will save time, space and possibly budget by having an all-in-one home espresso machine.

Alrighty then! How you approach espresso lands you squarely into one of these two distinct camps: Semi-automatic or superautomatic. Intuitively, this was the easiest espresso question to answer. If only there was a Harry Potter-style Sorting Hat to then announce the right machine for you! Instead, I will separate these two categories by their functionality and you can sort yourself.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

So you want to hand-craft your espresso beverages, eh? Now it’s time to consider what style of semi-automatic might best fit your needs.

Do you drink milk-based espressos (like lattes, cappuccinos etc)?

Yes, Two words…Latte Art No, I like espresso and Americanos
Single boiler home espresso machines can froth milk. A heat exchanger or a dual boiler will get the job done better and faster, but they can cost more due to more complicated internal systems. Even though you won’t need the steam wand to froth milk, you may use it to add hot water to an Americano so make sure it is easily accessible for how you will use the machine. Some machines even have a hot water spigot separate from the steam wand.

Will you invest in a quality burr grinder?

Yes, a good espresso grinder is just as important as the espresso machine Maybe, I’m not sure No, I might use espresso pods, pre-ground espresso and/or a pressurized portafilter
The grinder may cost almost as much as the espresso machine you select. A well designed and well built grinder will offer consistent and uniform particle size necessary for a great shot of espresso. If you are on the fence about it, consider a semi-auto espresso machine with a built-in grinder for the best of both worlds. This will limit your selection to models that can be adapted for espresso pods or compatible with a pressurized portafilter. You will still get to make your own drinks and these options will make it easier for beginners or those pressed for time.

Recommended Semi-Automatic Machines

Based on your answers to the above questions, here are a few different suggestions for you to start your machine research.

Nuova Simonelli Oscar home espresso machine
Bryan uses the red Nuova Simonelli Oscar heat exchanger espresso machine that I want

Semi-Automatic, with a latte focus and a good grinder

This is where I am now. I have a Baratza grinder and I am ready to find a semi-auto with excellent shots and very good frothing capability. Heat exchanger models and dual boilers both make excellent foam fast.

Breville Barista BES870XL
Breville Barista Express BES870XL

Semi-Automatic with a latte & shot focus, without a separate grinder

Not too many home espresso machines fit the bill but this Breville does! It has a thermoblock and an integrated burr grinder that saves space and economy of motion. It is a programmable semi-auto so it almost acts like a superautomatic machine and is very easy to use once it is set up.

infuserA thermoblock style, Breville Infuser BES840XL

Semi-Automatic with a latte focus and no grinder

This is where it all started for me — an older Breville model that was a bit smaller than this. It was an easy step into the world of espresso before committing to a costly set-up. Some come with pod adapters, pressurized and non-pressurized portafilter baskets for versatility.

Crossland CC1 + Baratza Preciso
The Crossland CC1 with a Baratza Preciso grinder is a great combo

Semi-automatic with an espresso focus and a good grinder

If your primary focus is quality espresso and you pay attention to tamp, temperature, timing and dosage then find a machine that allows you to control all of these variables. (This PID-controlled machine froths well too.)

Saeco Via Venezia
A small single boiler, Saeco Via Venezia with optional non-pressurized portafilter upgrade (right) and bottomless portafilter upgrade (left)

Semi-Automatic with an espresso focus and no grinder

Plop a pod in the basket and you’ve got what you need to make a ristretto or a lungo how you like it, when you want it. Quick and easy! Just in case you need a touch of frothy milk once in awhile there is a panarello too. A choice in portafilters helps you build espresso skills.

Superautomatic Espresso Machines

So ease of use is paramount for you, but you still want to drink great espresso-based drinks? A superauto may be the machine style for you. To determine which of the many versions available will be the best fit, here are a few more questions for you to consider.

Do you drink milk-based espressos (like lattes, cappuccinos etc)?

Yes, Creamy lattes are what life is all about No, I like espresso and Americanos
Not every superautomatic is great at frothing milk. Many users find that entry-level superautos don’t get the milk froth hot enough. A superauto that also has a steam wand is a nice touch so you can choose whether to use the machine’s auto-frother or its steam wand. Stand alone milk frothers are also a solution. Some superautos do not come with milk frothing capability. If you like espresso and Americanos (and maybe even an occasional Affogato!) this is not a problem. For guests who do like lattes a standalone milk frother is a quick and easy option for frothing milk or making hot chocolate.

Do you need a bypass doser for pre-ground coffee?

Yes, having the option for pre-ground coffee allows me to make a decaf sometimes No, I like fresh whole bean ground coffee for my espresso shots
Some superautos come with a bypass doser. This is a little chute directly to the brew unit so that you can use a different coffee than the beans that are already in the hopper. And that’s ok! if you don’t need the bypass doser that will save you some bucks on technology that you won’t use.

Recommended Superautomatic Machines

After considering the above questions, you should be armed to select which of the below machines speaks to you!

Saeco Xsmall superautomatic espresso machine
Bunny froths milk on a Saeco Xsmall superautomatic espresso machine, or as we like to call it, the Little Dude.

Superautomatic with a latte focus

Your favorite drink features creamy frothy milk, some Monin gourmet syrup and, oh yeah, espresso. If time and counter space are at a premium then a compact superauto can be a great option.

Saeco Exprelia EVO superautomatic espresso machine
Chris in the middle of “making” a one-touch cappuccino on the Saeco Exprelia EVO

Superautomatic with a latte focus and a bypass doser

For you, or for your guests, it’s great to have the option to make a decaf latte once in awhile. The pannarello wand assists by boosting more air into your steam. Or some models have one touch drink-making capability as a fancy feature.

Saeco Minuto superauto
Either/or Teri shows the Saeco Minuto superauto can serve regular coffee or strong espresso at the flip of a lever

Superautomatic with an espresso focus

Grab and go! Like in a true Italian espresso bar where you stand, converse a bit, have a few sips from your demitasse and continue on your way…Some superautos make quick and easy espresso or Americanos. The new Saeco Minuto will drop the pressure to make a single cup of true American-style filter coffee.

Saeco SyntiaPractically hands-free operation…here’s an action shot of the Saeco Syntia (after I made sure the shot glass was placed correctly!)

Superautomatic with an espresso focus and a bypass doser

Bypass doser capability is not always built into superautomatic espresso machines so make sure to verify its availability. The Saeco Syntia has a bypass doser and a pannarello wand making it a very versatile superauto.

Now you have thoughtful criteria to evaluate and select the best home espresso machine to meet your caffeinated (or decaf!) needs. The next step is to research our Learn section with informative articles and YouTube videos, ask questions and read reviews. Will there be a new home espresso machine on your counter in the New Year? There might be on mine!

$20 Thrift Shop Challenge – Coffee Edition

thrift shop coffee cupsSeattle is home to the singer Macklemore and his song ‘Thrift Shop’ was the theme for a really fun and unique birthday party I attended. The birthday party activity was a thrift shop challenge: Who can find the best present at Goodwill for under $20? With a tight budget and 45 minutes to shop, it was a great reminder that it really is ‘the thought that counts.’ We spent quality time together, had fun and didn’t spend much money.

This led me to wonder: Is a twenty dollar thrift store coffee challenge possible? I studied the aisles of previously owned houseware products to see which types of coffee accoutrements are commonly found. Based on SCG experience, here are my top tips for what thrift shop coffee items to try — and, possibly more essential, which items to avoid.

Storage – Yes!

Whether you use whole coffee beans or ground coffee, proper storage will help your coffee stay fresher and taste better. As coffee beans age they become harder and stale, the oils oxidize and can add a bad taste to the brewed cup. The best way to store coffee is in a cool, dark and dry place. Airtight storage is ideal and while decorative ceramic canisters are easy to find, make sure to select one with a tight fitting lid. Once the coffee is opened and stored, use it within 30 days for best taste.

Cups – Oh Yes!

Cups are easy to inspect for visible damage prior to purchase and easy to clean. This is the best coffee item to find at a thrift store because it shows your individuality at home or at work. I attended a wedding where thrift store coffee mugs served as the place cards on the tables. Each mug was specially selected by the bride and groom. Mine had my home state on it, which made it a very special memento of the day.

Drip Coffee Maker – No

I purchased a ‘vintage’ mini drip coffee maker for 4.99 to see if it worked. There are two factors to consider when making a delicious cup of drip coffee: Temperature and evenness of how the coffee grounds are wet. Expensive coffee makers have boilers that ensure the water is around 200F/93C for the entire brew process, which is in the ideal temperature range. Some also have fancy shower heads to evenly wet all of the coffee grounds in the filter basket. This creates an ‘even extraction’ which is necessary for the best tasting cup of coffee possible. After using coffee care products to clean and descale the internals, the little mini drip still didn’t work great. A better value for the same price is a new manual cone dripper. These simple cones are made out of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass and require a kettle and a filter. With this method, it’s you — not the coffee maker — that makes sure the water is the right temperature and all of the coffee grounds are evenly wet. Talk about quality control!

Espresso Maker – Maybe

A very traditional style stovetop espresso maker can often be found second-hand. This is a tried and true method for making delicious espresso coffee at home. There are two pieces that screw together with a small basket and a gasket in between. Inspect the unit to make sure there are no dents, that the pieces screw together easily and the gasket is intact. Replacement gaskets are available too. Most of these stovetop espresso makers are made out of aluminum, some are made out of stainless steel and they also come in different sizes. Make sure you are getting a good deal second-hand because you can also find some for less than twenty dollars brand new. Stay away from semi-automatic and superautomatic espresso machines unless you are a repair pro and you have access to replacement parts.

Other Coffee Brewing Methods – Depends

French press, cone drippers, immersion brewers, AeroPress, cold brew pots, Turkish coffee, the list of fancy coffee brewing methods goes on and on…These are all fun (and tasty!) manual methods of making coffee and espresso. Many of these ideas are under twenty dollars new, so make sure you are check the quality before you try one second-hand.

stove top

 

Scary French Press Experiments for Halloween

experimentWith (seemingly) unlimited access to great coffee and espresso making equipment comes great responsibility. In this spirit, Seattle Coffee Gear tests out the things we hear on the gear we have, mainly so you don’t have to … Sure, we made eggs with an espresso machine steam wand.  What more? This week, the interwebs inspired us to try three more truly crazy coffee experiments. Insert mad (coffee) scientist laughter here [muah hahaha]!!!

Coffee and Beer

This is a natural partnership in the beverage world. If you enjoy beer and coffee, there are plenty of coffee porters and espresso stouts available in specialty shops. But what if you want beer-flavor coffee instead of coffee-flavored beer? This question occurred to our Instagram friend one morning when he combined Young’s Double Chocolate Stout with Starbucks Pike Place medium roast and Bailey’s hazelnut coffee creamer in a mug. Sadly, he did not find the combination delicious. So we picked up where young Mister Alves left off … oh yeah, we brewed a French press with boiling beer instead of boiling water.

The recipe: French press, 32oz Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter heated almost to boil (at boiling it goes to a huge fizzy mess so monitor the situation carefully if you try this at home and use a saucepan that will hold double your initial volume for safety sake and, heck, while you’re at it put on some Kareem Abdul Jabbar-style safety goggles) and 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: It tasted like warm beer, the coffee essence was not pronounced. Bummer.

Coffee and Coconut Water

If it looks like water will it perform like water? This was the rationale behind our next experiment. In truth we thought we had a fair chance that this would turn out to be a taste sensation. Some folks have experimented with heated milk or soy milk as a water substitute also but in all cases the flavor did not extract well because the proteins and sugars get in the way.

The recipe: French press, plus we gurgled a 32oz carton of Vita Coco coconut water into a saucepan and brought it to a boil. Then we added 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: When refrigerated, coconut water doesn’t have a very distinctive taste, but heated, regrettably, it turned very sweet. The coffee flavor was barely there, it was as if someone had spilled the whole sugar bowl into a single cup of coffee.

Coffee and Chicken Broth

Ripped from the headlines! The single cup coffee brewer market is being taken by storm and by chicken noodle soup capsules. I took an informal survey of friends and family members who admitted to owning Keurigs, and my suspicions were confirmed: Not one of them had ever cleaned or descaled their little dudes. Why does their coffee taste bad? Many reasons, and now chicken soup is one. So to drive home the point that it doesn’t matter how you make your coffee, you have to keep your equipment clean, I made a French press with boiling chicken stock instead of boiling water.

The recipe: French press, 32oz Pacific Natural Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Broth heated to a simmer, 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: This approach was too concentrated. The chicken flavor predominated the combination and it was so strong it was hard to try even one sip. Gross!

Conclusion

After three failed experiments in a row, did I give up? No! In a stroke of genius inspired by too many episodes of the televised cooking contest Chopped, I combined all three results into one carafe. Surprisingly, this created a very wacky yet drinkable cup. In fact, it may already be invented and available for sale in an international vending machine somewhere. If it is not, feel free to pitch the idea yourself — now you have the recipe!

PS. Because Bunny would kill me if I wasted all of that nice Velton’s Coffee, I browned some ground pork, added some beans and New Mexico green chile and made a delicious chili con carne for dinner.

coffee beer chili with coconut water and chicken broth

Barista Snapshot: Cort Kern aka Barista Maniac

cortkernWho: Cort Kern, Professional Barista/Consultant

Where: Head Barista, Christ Church Of Oak Brook

What is a coffee consultant?

Someone who steps in to guide and restructure a current or new coffee shop. I provide training at a professional level to increase sales and run an effective business custom tailored for each shop owner.

What was the first coffee drink you remember tasting? Did you like it?

It was an Americano. I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but to be honest with you I just saw The Talented Mr. Ripley in the theatre that day and loved the song Americano. So it inspired me to order it. The barista behind the counter was singing the song without knowing I just saw the film.

What kind of coffee do you drink at home?

A black cup of coffee, no cream, no sugar. I use many different brewing methods at home including Chemex, Hario V60 dripper, Bodum siphon, AeroPress and Bunn Trifecta. I’m glad to have these at my disposal in the morning.

What kind of coffee do you drink at work, if different?

At work in the morning, I enjoy making myself a Cortado. Yes! Yes! Yes! My name is Cort. Many people at the church probably think I named the drink after me … I wish.

If you could teach people one thing about coffee, what would it be?

There are still quite a handful of people out there using drip coffee brewers. My first pour over coffee brewer was the Clever coffee dripper. I thought it was a unique way of brewing and it’s not very complicated. I’d gladly teach anyone how to use the Clever dripper effectively and by doing so it might open them up to try other delicious brewing options.

What’s cool about your local coffee scene?

The suburbs of Chicago are getting much better about coffee. There are some tiny hole-in-the wall places nearby, but the real meat and potatoes is in the city. I love Caffe Streets and Gaslight Coffee Roasters. So many independent markets are beginning to carry single origin coffees and fantastic cold brew options as well. I find it quite unique that I have the opportunity to serve professional espresso drinks at a church on Sundays.

As a barista, what are your thoughts on coffee skills versus customer service skills?

If you live in the suburbs, you need to do both to the best of your ability. But in Chicago I’ve dealt with nasty service and still had the most amazing cup. Personally, I like quality and great service and I try to share that philosophy as a coffee consultant.

Do you ever judge people by the drink they order?

Not at all. To each his own.

Whose espresso shots are better than yours?

On a Rancilio Epoca and a Faema X1 Granditalia Auto Steam, I got my dad beat. But at home his craft coffee and drink-making skills surpass mine. He finds it amazing what I can do with coffee and espresso these days though.

You can find Cort in his free time blogging about coffee and posting impressions on his website at www.baristamaniac.com and Twitter @BaristaManiac

photo by Ethan Paulson's Photography

photos by Ethan Paulson’s Photography

The Reluctant Barista Dials in a Coffee Grinder on the Last Frontier

IMG_1796Lots of Seattle Coffee Gear fans watch our YouTube videos to learn more about coffee and espresso with our hands-on tutorials. But what if you don’t have internet or wireless service available? This summer, I carefully hand-carried a Rancilio Rocky Coffee Grinder to Homer, Alaska, a location often highlighted as part of the current ‘Alaskan Reality TV Show’ craze. Let me tell you about the reality I faced as I tried to help my family dial in their new coffee grinder without the SCG Crew there to help me.

First of all, my family lives on twenty acres located ten miles outside of town. Fair to say, it is a little remote. Tom Bodett calls Homer The End of the Road: Electricity is a new arrival at the house and my mom still cooks on a wood stove. Internet comes via satellite service, which is comparable to the dial-up systems of yore in terms of both speed and reliability. My step-dad unpacked this nice hand-built Italian grinder on the coffee table and fished around inside the box for instructions. I laughed a little at the old-fashioned notion of reading a user manual and pulled out my smartphone. The joke was on me when I had no cell reception and such limited wi-fi that I could navigate to YouTube, but not play a video! Then, the joke was on him because the poorly translated Italian-to-English instructions left us scratching our heads.

I love the Rancilio Rocky grinder. It is a home grinder, but it’s made with commercial parts, so I knew it would be the right grinder to reliably produce the daily espresso needed to make my folks an Americano and a cappuccino. I reached deep into my memory bank to help set up this burr grinder. The one thing I clearly recalled was to make sure beans are ground through it as the burrs are adjusted lower so they do not grind against each other and cause damage. I wish I had seen Teri’s excellent video on how to dial in a Rocky before I left Seattle. We did find a written blog post by Kat years ago and used it to guide our efforts.

The part that frustrated me most about dialing in the new grinder was not the physical adjustment, but rather the amount of espresso beans used and time it took. Compared to the Baratza Virtuoso I have at home in Seattle, the process was night and day. By the time I ran through the recommended ¼ pound of beans on the Baratza I found my grind. With the Rocky, it took a full bag of beans plus the stopwatch app on my phone and multiple taste tests that left us all wired. The Rancilio instructions say that this process will never need to be repeated but I know from watching Kat and Gail’s videos that any time you get new beans or a new machine, re-calibration is required.

The Rancilio Rocky grinder is an excellent coffee grinder and the fuss of a more temperamental set up is rewarded with an ideal home espresso grind. My parents wanted a grinder that could be carefully maintained and serviced to last many years. In the greater scheme of things, an evening spent hopped-up on espresso shots was family bonding time and not actually wasted. Plus each morning thereafter was like Christmas as we raced to see who would get to use the new grinder first.

What is the takeaway from this cautionary tale? A) Don’t count on modern technology to work in the wilderness B) Be more patient than I am C) We put a great effort into creating the perfect home espresso station while there’s still no thought of indoor plumbing. And that is the reality of life on the Last Frontier.

homer