Coffee – grinding for espresso

One of the keys to a good espresso is a very consistent fine grind and freshly ground coffee. If you have that then you will be getting a great espresso, whether you are using a $50 stove top espresso pot or a $5000 top-of-the-line commercial machine.

Will there be a quality difference between the espresso produced by the $50 pot vs the $5000 machine? Of course, but the difference is smaller than you would think. I can speak from personal experience here having had and used both, that you can get a really great espresso from either. Using a  cheaper machine, you have to play a few tricks to get really good results, but it can be done.

If you don’t have consistently ground fresh coffee, then you could buy the best machine on the planet and you will still get lousy espresso.

Over the years I have had a variety of grinders, from cheap to expensive. I have taken cheap grinders apart and performed surgery on them to enable them to produce an espresso grind with some success, but once I bought my first good grinder there was no looking back. The issue is that cheap grinders have cheap parts. The burrs that grind the coffee aren’t very good, and the burr mounts don’t adjust with much precision, so even if you manage to adjust the machine so that it will produce a fine grind it is likely to be inconsistent.with a lot of variety in the size of the grounds. That is the death knell for espresso.

Additionally, you will also lack the ability to make minute adjustments to the grind and then have to start compensating with different tamping pressures. Can you do it? – well yes, but you will be inconsistent, and have one espresso that is really good and then the next one is sour.

rockyThe rule of thumb that a lot of people have used over the years is that you should spend half your equipment budget on the grinder, and that a minimum spend for a grinder that works well would be around $400 for something like a Rancillio Rocky grinder, which many people regard as one of the best entry level espresso grinders. Yup – $400 and it an entry level grinder.


mazzerFor those with very generous budgets, the price you can spend can get very high, and you can spend $3000 for a top end Mazzer, but for most of us that is just totally OTT. It is a great machine, and the results are excellent, but $3000 for a grinder has pushed well past the limit for the law of diminishing returns and for those of us that have a few coffees during the day it is overkill in nuclear dimensions.


baratza_encoreI did a lot of research and true to the mantra of great coffee on the cheap I decided to try the entry level Baratza espresso grinder, the Encore, which retails at around $150. After living with it for a year, I can recommend it highly. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles, it doesn’t even have a grind timer but it simply works. It produces a very nice consistent grind and has just enough adjustment on it so that you can tweak your espresso pull just right.

Is this going to get you the perfect espresso all of the time? – no – lower end equipment makes it more difficult to achieve perfection. The grind on the Encore is good, but not perfect. If you have a single boiler machine, then the likelihood is that the temperature control isn’t that great. so you will have to play around with techniques like temperature surfing. If you have top of the line equipment, you wont have to do this and you are more likely to achieve great results consistently. What I have found though is that with a little practice, you can achieve pretty spectacular results and that qualifies as sublime.

Coffee – lets talk espresso

Whether you like espresso, cappucino, latte or one of the other versions of coffee nirvana, most of them are based upon an espresso pull and then have something added.

espressoLets clear something up right away, espresso is not a roast,  it is a way of brewing coffee. The dark oily beans that you sometimes see are NOT necessary for an espresso. If you are limiting yourself to that then you are missing out on many of the nuances of this delightful drink.

An espresso is a coffee drink that is  created by pumping close to boiling water under pressure through very finely ground coffee. This can be done via a pump, via a spring loaded lever or many other ways, but it is the process that is espresso, not the bean. One of my favourtie beans for espresso is Ethiopian Yirgacheffe that has been roasted medium. Not an oily bean in sight.

Espresso is also usually a fairly small drink – it isn’t your Extra LargeTims Double Double. By adding steamed milk you can create a Latte or a Cappucino, and make it a longer drink, but the basic espresso is usually only about I fl oz, so it is an intense burst of flavor.

The unique thing about the espresso process is that if you are using the right beans and they are ground exactly right then you will get a wonderful topping on your coffee that is a lightish creamy brown color with whisps of darker brown in it. This is called crema, and some beans produce a lot, and others very little, so a bit of internet research is called for. The crema is also what allows you to create latte art.

tamperAs a guideline if you are pulling single shots, then it should take your machine about 15 seconds to pour a 1 oz espresso. If it is faster than that – then make the grind a little finer, and if it is longer, then make the grind a little coarser. You can also compensate a little by tamping a little lighter or heavier. I tend to tamp very lightly and have a slightly finer grind, but others may choose differently.


baratza_encoreThe key to a good espresso is the grind and tamp. You need to have a very good grinder that is capable of grinding the coffee very finely and also very consistent. The last thing you want is some grounds to be almost dust and others to be Maxwell House size. Once you have ground it, you need to fill your portafilter and press it down evenly and that is where a good tamper comes in.  If you are on a budget and are trying to figure out how to stretch your funds by have to make a choice between a cheap espresso machine and a cheap grinder, you will get much better espresso with the cheap machine and good grinder.


Coffee – you roasted it so now what

In the last article I talked about roasting on the cheap, so that was taking green coffee and roasting it in a hot air popcorn popper. You can certainly go more expnsive and there are a lot of home roasters that you can buy that do a great job. That being said – they aren’t that much better than a popper. It is only once you get into a drum roaster that you start to gain.

popcornThe issue using a popcorn popper is that you will inevitably get a slightly uneven roast. There will be a couple of beans that didn’t move as well as they should, and they got over roasted. So – chuck em out. The other thing with a popcorn popper is that you cannot over fill it, otherwise you will get a very uneven roast. I’d recommend that you don’t go above a quarter of a cup of green beans. The reason is that green beans contain more moisture than roasted beans so they start off heavier, and at the beginning of the roast they don’t get mixed up by the hot air evenly if you overload. The end result is the bottom beans will burn before the top beans start to roast.

If you stick to a quarter cup this doesn’t happen.

You have been warned.

The other thing is that over time your popcorn popper will start to look really nasty. The air chamber will take a brown stain, and probably the top will start to look nasty too. I don’t bother cleaning mine much, other than giving it a quick wipe down betweeen roasts, and it sits in the cupboard between roasts giving the other half conniptions. Bottom line on this is it’s 15 bucks you have spent, so who cares, If it lasts a year, then for the price of three Starbucks you have had a year of great coffee.

With those caveats, you will end up with a quarter cup of beans roasted nicely after 10 minutes or so and have to chuck a few away for  a total outlay of 15 bucks a year.

You let them sit and cool for a few hours and store them in an airtght container. If kept tlike this, then they are good for a week or so, as long as you don’t grind them. Once you grind them, then use them immediately.

baratza_encoreThis then brings us on to grind. If you are an espresso addict like me, then you need a very good grinder that is both capable of grinding very fine, and also capable of grinding very evenly. If you are not into espresso, then you can get away with a much less capable grinder. The grinder I use is a Baratza Encore burr grinder that you can buy for about $150 and I consider to be a) a really great grinder for the price, and b) about the minimum quality I would consider for espresso. I’ve used cheaper grinders and you can really tell the difference.

For those people that are just into drip or filter coffee, you can get a quite capable grinder for less than $50, just not one for espresso.

The key here is to grind the coffee just before you use it. Ground coffee starts to lose its oils and flavor quite quickly – you can notice the difference in just a couple of hours. If you have to grind earlier (the missus doesn’t like the sound of the grinder first thing in the morning lets say) then seal the ground coffee in an airtight container.


Coffee – roasting on the cheap

In a prior article, I spent a little time talking about coffee, where it comes from, the various types and left off at the point that the green beans were now ready to be shipped. If you wish to read that article it is called Coffee – the basics.

That is great as far as it goes – but now you ask, what the heck should I do now.

Well, the answer to that is simple – roast it, grind it, brew it and enjoy nirvana.

First – roasting.

Freshness is a huge issue with store-bought coffee since the quality of the coffee declines quickly after roasting. After 5 days the aromatics of the coffee are fading, and after 10 days there is a drop in overall cup quality. When you roast your own your coffee is always fresh. Lord knows how old the big-brand coffees sold in supermarkets and cafes actually is. Also home roasting lets you control the roast level, so you can customize the coffee to your liking, as well as choose from a vast array of green coffees. Green coffee, unlike roasted, is quite stable and will not have a drop in cup quality from about 6 months up to 1 year from arrival date

Roasting coffee is a little like popping popcorn. Most of the home coffee roasters out there work in a similar way to an electric hot air popcorn popper in that they blow hot air through the green coffee beans and heat them up. Some use the air being blown through the coffee to stir it up and ensure an even roast, some have drums to ensure an even roast. The larger commercial units pretty much all use a drum. The difference is in the consistency of the roast, with the drum roasters being more even. Irrespective, The coffee slowly roasts and just like a popcorn, the bean changes as it gets cooked.


Understanding the different stages of the roast will help you control the flavor of your cup and appreciate how different roasts result in different cup flavors.

Yellowing: For the first few minutes the bean remains greenish, then turn lighter yellowish and emit a grassy smell.

Steam: The beans start to steam as their internal water content dissipates.

First Crack: The steam becomes fragrant. Soon you will hear the “first crack,” an audible cracking sound as the real roasting starts to occur: sugars begin to caramelize, bound-up water escapes, the structure of the bean breaks down and oils migrate from their little pockets outward.

First Roasted Stage: After the first crack, the roast can be considered complete any time according to your taste. The cracking is an audible cue, and, along with sight and smell, tells you what stage the roast is at. This is what is call a City roast.

Caramelization: Caramelization continues, oils migrate, and the bean expands in size as the roast becomes dark. As the roast progresses, this is a City + roast. I hardly ever go past this point. When you are the verge of second crack, that is a Full City roast. The bean is now a dark brown, but doesn’t look oily

Second Crack: At this point a “second crack” can be heard, often more volatile than the first. The roast character starts to eclipse the origin character of the beans at this point and is also known as a Vienna roast. A few pops into second crack is a Full City + roast. Roasting all the way through second crack may result in small pieces of bean being blown away like shrapnel!

Darkening Roast: As the roast becomes very dark, the smoke is more pungent as sugars burn completely, and the bean structure breaks down more and more. As the end of second crack approaches you will achieve a French roast. The beans tend to look black and oily. This is what a lot of people consider an espresso roast, but as I’ll cover in another article, this simply isn’t true, and you have MUCH more options with espresso than that.

That deals with the process – basically you heat the beans up and stop when you reach the color you want. This is where internet research comes into play, as each type of bean changes its taste depending upon where you stop the roast. My favorite coffee, Ethiopian Yirgacheffee has very different flavors depending upon where you stop the roast and I like it just after first crack, even when I use it for espresso.

So you can either use color or sound to determine where to stop your roast. Now lets talk process and tools. What I use is a popcorn popper, that I bought for $15 and a couple of bowls. I run the popcorn popper in the kitchen under the exhaust hood and the chaff that gets blown off the bean goes into a large metal bowl. Don’t use a small bowl as the air from the popper will blow the chaff out as it is very light and you will make a heck of a mess. As part of the roasting process, especially if you like darker roasts, there will be smoke, so that is why it is done under the exhaust hood.

Once your beans have achieved the state of roast that you want – then tip them into a colander, give them a bit of a shake to get some of the remaining chaff off, and leave them to cool. If it is winter, then by an open window works great, if it is summer, the same thing works, but stop your roast a little earlier as the beans don’t cool down as quickly and do continue to cook a little.

Once the beans are nice and cool, then give them another shake, or rub them between your hands to remove the remaining chaff, and you are ready to go. The experts say that you shouldn’t use coffee for about 4 hours after it has been roasted, as it is still outgassing. You can see this – if you seal your newly roasted coffee into a jar with a relatively loose lid immediately after roasting, the lid will get blown off at some point. What I do is simply leave the beans  to cool/outgass for a few hours and then seal them into a jar.

There you have it, your first batch of roasted coffee. It is easy, simple and cheap, and fits the subject as it is truly sublime.

Coffee – the basics

Coffee is grown all over the world, and each varietal has its own characteristics, from the tiny round coffee beans of Tanzanian peaberry to the much larger Columbian beans. As well, the region it is grown with its unique weather and soil, adds another layer to a distinct character.

Broadly speaking, there are two major species of coffee beans, Arabica and Robusta. For all intents and purposes, Arabica is the fine wine of the coffee world and Robusta is the cheap plonk. Arabica is a much more delicate plant and required cool subtropical climates with lots of moisture, rich soil shade and sun, and only grows at higher elevations. Robustas are hardier  plants, capable of growing at lower altitudes and are much more tolerant of pests and rough handling and yield more pounds of finished beans at a lower cost. Within that there are over a hundred varieties of Arabica and two varieties of Robusta.

Pretty much anyone who is seriously into coffee will turn their nose up at Robusta, although there is a case to be made for putting a small percentage of Robusta into an espresso blend, but more on that later. For the purpose of this starter guide, some broad brushstrokes are that Arabicas tend to have a sweeter, softer taste and have complex flavours whereas Robustas tend to have a stronger, harsher taste with less nuances. Like all broad brushstrokes, there are exceptions to the rule, but you won’t go too far wrong using it as a guideline. Your average big can of coffee in a supermarket will tend to be Robusta, unless it is labelled otherwise. Oh – one final note, Robustas tend to have a much higher caffeine level  – up to double that of Arabicas.

coffeeplantCoffee starts its journey growing on a plant that looks like a small Christmas tree. The coffee plant tends to be around 5-7 foot tall and the beans grow in clusters on the branches and look very much  like a cherries. Most coffee is still picked by hand and the coffee cherries are picked when they reach ripeness.

The outside of the ripe coffee cherry is covered in a thick skin, underneath that is a jelly-like flesh and inside that, covered by a thin protective layer called parchment and another thin layer called silver skin is the coffee bean.

The first step in the process of making your cup of Joe is to remove everything off the bean itself. There are two ways to process the cherry, one is called wet processing and the other, surprise surprise is called dry processing.

Lets talk dry first. The cherries are spread out for up to three weeks in the sun and stirred regularly to allow them to dry evenly. They are then hulled, either by machine or hand to remove the dried out pulp and parchment. This is the traditional way of processing coffee and hasn’t really changed in centuries.

The other process is known as the wet or “washed” process, where a few hours after the coffee cherries have been harvested, the pulp is removed and then the beans are repeatedly washed and rinsed. The washing process involves a type of fermentation that softens the pulp and skin and allows it to be easily rinsed off..

greencoffeeOnce this is completed, you have what is known as green coffee, that is sorted, graded, bagged and shipped off to suppliers all over the world. Yup – as the picture shows, it is actually green and doesn’t attain that lovely brown color until it is roasted. It also doesn’t tend to smell of anything either.

This is where you come in. You will be buying green coffee and doing the rest of the work yourself. This is good, because green coffee doesn’t go stale – it can be stored for months before use, and it is only once it gets roasted that the clock starts running.

Next we will talk about roasting – especially roasting on the cheap.

The blood of life

coffeeFor those of you that don’t know me away from the web, one of the things that I refuse to live without is good coffee. It is one of those things that I regard as sublime when done properly.

Before you ask, no I don’t mean Starbucks, which I regard as overpriced and burned, and I definitely don’t mean pods, which while convenient, don’t qualify under any definition of sublime. I’m talking about the liquid nirvana that comes when you DIY,

Yup, DIY.

No, I don’t have coffee bushes growing in my back yard, but I do roast my own coffee and the results are stellar. I roast for espresso and I also roast for filter and both turn out great.

It really isn’t difficult, and usually the hardest part is finding a decent supply of green coffee beans as a starting point. Once you have that – well the world is your oyster and you can get going on the process for a total outlay of about 15 dollars for the roaster and as long as you aren’t grinding for espresso, not much more for the grinder.

Over the next few articles, I’ll be taking you on a journey of how you too can up your coffee experience with very little cost and effort. You will enjoy the journey, and you will enjoy the end result even more.

I promise!

Next: Coffee – the basics