From the bottom of my heart, Merry Christmas to you, your family and all your loved ones.
This week there is no coffee content as I recover from a severe flu but for the next post and into 2018, I have few things planned out that I’m sure you will find interesting and informative. Stay tuned and looking forward to a great 2018!
The E61 grouphead design has been on the market and an integral part of home and commercial espresso for a long time, after all it debuted more than 50 years ago! I was thinking to myself, for such an old technology, it still seems to be dominant, at least in the home espresso market till today but what if the E61 grouphead is not your thing. What if you need a grouphead that’s not just passively heated or what if the exposed grouphead design is not for you, or what if turning a lever up and down is not your favorite thing (volumetric dosing anyone?). What are the options out there for someone who’s willing to spend north of $2000 on a Heat Exchange or a Dual Boiler machine? I currently have a Nuova Simonelli Musica and one of the reason I asked myself these questions is because I’m not crazy about the E61 groupheads and I was wondering what my next upgrade will be If I decide to upgrade my machine by this Christmas. Surprisingly, there aren’t too many options out there for someone like me!
for this post, I have decided to look at 3 of the top home espresso gear dealers and list the machines they have that meet the following criteria:
Costing $2000 and up
Use a grouphead technology other than an E61 grouphead.
The dealers are: Seattle Coffee Gear, Whole Latte Love and Chris Coffee. Please keep in mind that I’m excluding machines that have built-in grinders as I’m assuming people upgrading from their existing machines are serious enough about their espresso that they have a separate grinder with steeples adjustments.
The machines I found are:
La Spaziale S1 Dream T ($2100) – Chris Coffee
La Spaziale S1 Vivaldi II ($2200) – Whole Latte Love and Chris Coffee
La Spaziale S1 Dream ($2300) – Chris Coffee
La Cimbali Junior Casa DT1 ($3000) – Chris Coffee
Nuova Simonelli Musica ($2200 – $3500) – Seattle Coffee Gear
La Marzocco Linea Mini ($4500) – Seattle Coffee Gear and Chris Coffee
La Marzocco GS3 ($7100 – $7500) – Seattle Coffee Gear, Whole Latte Love and Chris Coffee
Slayer 1 Group ($8500) – Seattle Coffee Gear and Chris Coffee
Unfortunately, the list is extremely short and the options are very limited, especially compared to the number of available machines with the E61 grouphead. Also, all these options are limited in some shape or form, except when you step up to the GS3 and the Slayer.
La Spaziale machines use a 53mm portafilter and have spotty reliability records. La Cimbali is not popular in the home espresso market in the US so support, parts, etc. will be difficult to come by and expensive once the warranty has expired. The Musica is a great machine but frankly I prefer a dual boiler so I can have maximum control over temperature. Also, the Musica is extremely overpriced (see my post here about the things I don’t like about the Musica). This leaves the Linea Mini, GS3 and the Slayer, all of them are more than $4000!
I’m hoping that more grouphead designs find their way into new machines in the future, as they become cheaper and readily available.
The Aeropress brewer is loved almost universally. I have neither talked to anyone who complained about it nor read a negative review by someone who bought it and didn’t like it. This love and appreciation by coffee lovers all over the world is mainly due to the delicious coffee the brewer produces, ease of use and portability but not due to the delicious espresso it produces. You see, the AeroPress promises to be a coffee and espresso maker but coffee lovers, including myself, disagree with the “espresso maker” part.
Now, a company named Fellow, which makes the fancy Stagg gooseneck kettles and other coffee brewing equipments and accessories, decided to try and bring the AeroPress closer to its promise of making espresso by manufacturing and selling the Prismo. To be clear, the Prismo does not promise espresso shots instead it promises espresso-style (more on that in a second) shots. According to Fellow (copied from their website), the reason they can’t claim that the Prismo produces an espresso shot is the following:
“Traditional espresso has a long and honored tradition of how it’s made, from tamping the puck to pulling a shot in the right amount of time, to that well-revered 9 bars of pressure. There were enough differences between how “espresso-style” coffee with Prismo works and traditional espresso that we felt the need to let our customers know. Here are a few important differences we wanted to share:
The pressure inside Prismo doesn’t reach 9 bars… unless you’re superman! By our calculations, you would need to put over 2,000lbs of force on top of your Aeropress Coffee Maker to reach 9 bars (130psi) with Prismo. That’s not something we recommend trying at home!
The temperature of a Prismo shot is somewhat lower than an espresso shot. High end espresso machines tend to have pre-heated group heads, which help to maintain high temperatures in the puck while pulling a shot. Our preferred recipes with Prismo haven’t involved pre-heating, which means the coffee slurry temperature is a little lower. This lower temperature does great for producing chocolatey flavors with a lot of body and is excellent for blends and medium to dark roasted coffee. Your local cafe’s espresso blend will probably work great! However, for some lighter roasted single origin coffees, we’ve prefered brewing a full cup of coffee on the Prismo rather than an espresso-style shot.
Our best tasting espresso-style recipe takes about 70 seconds from start to finish. We’ve loved the flavor we’re getting from Prismo’s espresso-style coffee when we give it just a little extra time to develop. With some stirring, the right temperature water, and a strong press, we’ve produced full-bodied shots with a thick, yummy crema that lasts. But yes internet, a traditional espresso shot is about 20-30 seconds.”
Fellow’s approach to the Prismo was to replace the original plastic basket (or filter holder) of the AeroPress with one that has a pressure actuated valve. This valve allows more pressure buildup inside the AeroPress, hence making it easier to produce a shot with qualities, such as crema, resembling a traditional espresso shot. The way the Prismo allows for more pressure buildup is simply by having the valve require more pressure from the user before it opens up to release the coffee. This idea is very similar to pressurized baskets used in lower end espresso machines. The pressurized baskets help cheaper machines achieve the pressure needed for an espresso shot while making the grind and the grinder less important.
The Prismo comes in two pieces, the first piece is the plastic basket replacement and the second piece is the built-in 80 micron filter.
The Prismo has few benefits that I like:
It allows for the use of paper filters if you prefer paper over metal filters. I personally use a combination of both (yes, a paper filter fits on top of the metal Fellow filter)
It eliminates the need for brewing using the inverted method since the valve does not release coffee unless you’re applying pressure. This also makes the AeroPress much easier to use as you do not have to rush and insert the plunger after you have poured enough coffee to start the blooming phase of your brew.
The metal filter by itself, which is included with the Prismo, makes the device worth the $20 I paid for it.
After playing with the Prismo over the period of few days, I don’t believe that it produces an espresso-style shot/coffee. The Prismo produces excellent coffee and an americano I made with it was absolutely delicious, and the “espresso-style” shots I made were full bodied, had a rich mouthfeel and really maintained some of the chocolatey notes I usually pick up in the shots I pull using my Nuova Simonelli Musica (coffee I used was Lavazza Top Class). However, I think the same way the Bialetti Moca Pot and the Turkish coffee made in the Ibrik don’t claim to make espresso or espresso-style coffee, the Prismo shouldn’t claim that either. The reason I believe so is that I don’t think it’s fair for the Prismo! While Fellow went to great lengths to explain what they mean by espresso-style, I’m positive that many people out there will confuse espresso-style with espresso and the Prismo will still be compared and measured against traditional espresso and the verdict won’t be in Prismo’s favor. Having said that, when the Prismo is judged by itself as a coffee making device or accessory, that can take a brewer (AeroPresso) to the next level, the results are very favorable and highly desirable.
One of the myths and misconceptions out there is that you need an expensive tamper to pull good espresso shots. This couldn’t be further from the truth. An espresso tamper serves one main purpose, which is tamping or compacting the coffee tightly together as to ensure proper and even flow of water throughout the puck. Now, the most important feature of a tamper to ensure a quality tamp, is the base size. Water is lazy and it will always take the path of least resistant. A smaller diameter tamper, will only tamp part of the coffee but not all of it. This will cause the coffee that was tamped to be overextracted while the ring of coffee that was not tamped (due to the smaller diameter tamper base) to be underextracted. The mix of underextraction and overextraction will cause the flavor to be off. For under $30 you can find a perfect size tamper, depending on the size of your basket, that will last you a lifetime and will do the job perfectly (assuming you have the proper tamping technique down).
Many people believe that tamper weight is very important and they seek heavier tampers made out of stainless, metal, etc. but I personally disagree with that. As explained earlier, the size of the tamper is the most important feature of a tamper, weight is merely a preference as some people prefer a certain heft in their hand while tamping. Having said that, there is a case to be made for lighter tampers but that’s a different conversation for another day.
Having said that, many people will spend $200 on tampers, which is perfectly fine, but keep in mind that many of those tampers serve and do the same job the $30 tamper does. The main difference is that the $200 tamper most likely has a handle made out of fancy wood or exquisite materials with unmistakable craftsmanship (and other cosmetic attributes) while the $30 tamper is made out of metal or other plain more modest materials. The $200 tamper is most likely beautiful to look at but that’s about it. There is one exception to this however, some tampers that do cost $150 or more actually do a lot more than simply ensure a full tamp of the coffee puck. Tampers such as The Force Tamper, Bravo Tamper, Espro Calibrated Tamper etc. also ensure a perfectly leveled tamp as they sit on top of the basket ensuring that when the tamper base comes in contact with the coffee, it is fully leveled, this ensures that the water is (by sliding to the lower side of the puck) not going to prefer one side over the other. A sloping, uneven tamp can be seen from a bottomless portafilter if the coffee stream/cone is off center and can also be seen if using a double spout portafilter and coffee is coming out of one side of the spout more than the other. The Force Tamper will even go a step further than most tampers by applying the same tamping force, regardless of dose. This convenient feature is nice to have if you change dosage or coffees as you won’t need to adjust the travel distance of the tamper to ensure proper pressure.
To summarize, an expensive tamper won’t do a better job than a cheaper one if both tampers are appropriately sized for the coffee basket. The only time a more expensive tamper will do a better job if it can ensure a leveled tamp (by sitting on top of the coffee basket) and/or if it can ensure a consistent tamping pressure/force, shot after shot.
For this week’s post, I wanted to compare two different coffee distribution tools, The Force Tamper distribution tool vs the OCD knockoff distribution tool. Both tools are supposed to achieve the same thing, which is distribute the coffee grounds evenly in the portafilter basket, albeit using different methods. The OCD knockoff is using three fins that are slightly angled as to push (distribute) the coffee around as you twist the tool. The Force Tamper built-in distribution tool uses a metal bar that sits on what appears to be tiny springs. The base’s weight sits on the coffee grounds and when you start twisting the tamper/base the metal bar starts pushing the coffee around to also distribute the coffee and the springs that the bar is sitting on ensures that it adapts to coffee bumps or any unevenness in the basket, the same way a car’s suspension adapts to road unevenness.
For the purpose of this comparison, I have chosen to pull 2 shots, one using the OCD knockoff distribution tool and the other using The Force Tamper built-in distribution tool. The only variable here is the distribution tool. Both shots were pulled using the same coffee (Kimbo Superior Blend), same grinder (Mazzer Super Jolly), same espresso machine (Nuova Simonelli Musica), same cooling flush duration (5 to 6 seconds after flash boiling), same basket (VST 20gm) and even same tamper (The Force Tamper, one with base that has the built-in distribution tool and the other with a flat base without the built-in distribution tool).
The results were interesting, the shot pulled with The Force Tamper built-in distribution tool looked nicer and a little less bitter. Below is a side by side comparison of both shots 10 seconds after the first drop of coffee appeared from the basket.
To be totally fair, the less bitter taste could have been the result of a little longer cooling flush before I pulled the second shot but it could also be the result of a better distribution, as shown in the side by side pictures above.
Personally, I prefer The Force Tamper built-in distribution tool for the following reasons:
Visually better extraction (taste difference is negligible but definitely better distribution).
Tool costs under $30 and can be easily retrofitted to your existing The Force Tamper. The OCD knockoff costs around the same, although it can be used with your existing tamper but with less than ideal results.
More streamlined workflow as there is no need to switch between tools.
Unlike the OCD knockoff distribution tool, The Force Tamper does not need to have the depth of the fins adjusted (manually or by adding shims) every time you change dose or coffee, as it adapts to the height of the coffee bed.
I have made a video documenting the comparison and you can watch it here:
For this week, I decided to take advantage of the fact that The Force Tamper, which I have reviewed and blogged about before, have been sent to me with multiple bases and make a video to compare the effects the shape of a tamper base plays in the extraction of an espresso shot. What I’m after is to find out if there is a basis to claims that some bases perform better than others taste and looks wise. I chose the following bases for the test as they are more commonly used/known:
For this test, the following variables are constant:
Temperature is maintained at around 200F by doing a 5 to 6 seconds cooling flush
The basket is the same one used across all 4 shots, a VST 20g basket in a bottomless portafilter
The input is 17g of coffee and the output is around 32g to 34g of liquid.
Distribution evenness was maintained by using the WDT distribution technique (paper clip to distribute/agitate the coffee grounds in the basket) and a Chinese knockoff distribution tool similar to the OCD.
The following are pictures showing the shots 10 seconds from the moment the first drop of liquid appeared from the basket. This will give a basis for comparison that’s pretty consistent.
First shot is using the Curve base:
Second shot using the C-Flat base:Third shouting the Ripple base:
Fourth shot using the Flat base:
Looking at the pictures, I seem to think that the Ripple and Flat bases have performed best. Taste wise, I haven’t noticed any major difference, except that the shot extracted using the Curve base tasted unbalanced and the shot extracted using the Flat base tasted the most balanced. Please note that these tasting notes are based on my palette, others may be able to detect much deeper differences and complicated notes that I may have not tasted. I personally use a flat base as I find it to be the easiest to work with and the most consistent but others have found other base shapes to be best for their coffees, use or machines. You can also watch the video below for the full extractions and feel free to leave me comments with any questions or suggestions you may have.
This weekend was a busy one. On Saturday my wife and family celebrated my 32nd birthday and went above and beyond to get me a cake fit for a coffee addict/lover like myself. My wife tricked me into believing that we will be going to my parents house to celebrate my birthday when they were in fact all coming to my house. The biggest surprise of the night, aside from not knowing that people are coming to my house, was the cake. My wife used one of my instagram latte art pictures and worked with the baker to make me a custom-made cake in the shape of a latte mug with latte art. The cake stole the show and people started taking pictures of the cake instead of myself!
On Sunday, we decided to go walk around New Hope in Pennsylvania and pay Sky Roast Coffee a visit. Sky Roast Coffee is a new coffee place located in the newly constructed New Hope Ferry Market. Ferry market is located on Main Street and it’s home to 13 vendors offering different culinary experiences and a wide variety of food and drinks. The owner, Alan Cohen, is an active member of the Home Barista forum and his journey to obtain and open this place is well documented there and I had intended on visiting his place once he was in business. Alan was on premises and so I introduced myself and congratulated him on the shop. I proceeded to order a medium roast coffee from their batch brew and my wife ordered a chai tea. The place has a bar and stools to sit and the seating is facing the beautiful 3-group Victoria Arduino Athena copper.
Alan was working on tweaking the grind for optimal espresso shot extraction and then offered me a double shot and tasted excellent. It was balanced with plenty of body, very different from the usual, more common acidic and floral notes I get at most other specialty coffee places. I then proceeded to check the collection of whole bean coffees for sale and picked a Brazilian blend that promised a lot of chocolate notes and very little acidity, exactly the way I like it. One thing I liked about the package was the easy open tab on the back of the bag. Opening a sealed bag of coffee usually requires scissors or you can try to open it by hand and risk having your expensive freshly roasted beans fly all over your kitchen!
After I went back, Alan offered me their signature drink, a Maple Syrup Cortado! The drink was delicious, the maple syrup balances out the bitterness in the coffee and adds to the sweetness of the steamed milk that makes up 50% or more of the Cortado.
Aside from the espresso and the espresso-based drinks. Batch brews and pour over coffee are also available and by the looks of the pour over station and the smell of the freshly ground coffee, I expect the coffee to taste delicious.
New Hope and its neighbor, Lambertville in New Jersey already have excellent coffee places such as Rojo’s Roastery and the Lambertville Trading Company but Sky Roast Coffee, with its hands on approach by the owner, the excellent coffee selection, freshly roaster beans and excellent location, takes the already excellent coffee scene in Bucks County to a new high. These are great days for specialty coffee and coffee aficionados in and around Bucks County.
When Acaia released the Lunar, they advertised it as the only scale you will ever need to pull espresso shots. The company, as you would expect, highlighted all its features such as water resistance as pros for espresso enthusiasts but one aspect of it really stood out to most people and it wasn’t a feature, the app or the water resistance capabilities instead it was the price! The Lunar retails for $220. Yes, that’s correct, $220 for a scale that’s designed for the sole purpose of pulling espresso shots consistently and tracking those shots via an app.
Because of this price, consumers started wondering if the Lunar, despite its small size, can double as a scale for manual coffee brewing methods such as V60 and Chemex. Thinking that way is a normal and rational human behavior as people try to maximize utility or benefits for every dollar spent. Now, Acaia also sells the Pearl scale, which is a scale dedicated to manual coffee brewing, but this scale is also not cheap at $150. In other words, you will need close to $400 if you would like to have a dedicated coffee scale for manual brewing and an espresso scale for pulling espresso shots and have both scales from Acaia.
The good news is that the Lunar can definitely be used for coffee brewing, as long as you are using the included mat that goes on top of the scale. Watch the video below and see how for $220, you can get yourself an excellent espresso scale that can also double down as a manual coffee scale.
Couple of months ago, Zubing Sun, the owner and inventor of The Force Tamper posted a video on Instagram demoing a tamper base (for The Force Tamper) that can distribute the grounds inside the basket before tamping, needless to say I was intrigued and impressed. Zubing graciously sent me couple of units for review along with a clear glass basket so that I’m able to see in action the distribution done by the new base.
As pictured below, the base has a thin metal bar going across the diameter of the base Zubing sent me one flat and one ripple base. This thin metal bar moves up and down as needed and depending on the amount of coffee in the basket.
The way it works, you sit your The Force Tamper on the basket like you would do for tamping, except instead of pressing down right away you let the weight of the Tamper sink inside the basket and then you rotate the tamper handle few times at either direction (clockwise or counterclockwise). This motion leverages the metal bar that’s built in the base to sweep or distribute the coffee.
Here’s a video showing how it works
Here’s another video showing the distributor tool in action, using a clear basket that was designed to showcase the distribution action.
Before receiving this base, my flow involved using a separate distribution tool (similar to the OCD distribution tool) to distribute the coffee and then tamping the coffee. There are 3 main things I like about this base:
No need for a separate tool. Distribution and tamping can now be done using one tool and that’s The Force Tamper.
No need to adjust the depth of the distribution tool. If you have owned a distribution tool, you know that every time you change dosing or coffee you will need to manually adjust the depth of the blade of the distribution tool to get a flat, even puck with no holes or irregularities. Since the distribution done by the base relies on the weight of the tamper, there are no adjustments needed.
The price. For $29 you get a base for tamping and a distribution tool. This price is unbeatable on the market as the cheapest distribution tool out there cost more than $80. Even the Chinese knockoffs of the OCD distribution tools cost more than $40.
Overall, I’m very happy with the new distribution base for The Force Tamper. It does the job effectively and efficiently while saving you some cash in the process.
Last year my wife and I visited the 2016 New York Coffee Festival and we had a great time. My wife is not as crazy about coffee as myself but she enjoyed the live music, the excellent selection of talented up and coming musicians and the live latte art booth at the festival (yes, a live music indoor set is part of the show!). Last weekend my wife and I decided to repeat the experience and visit the New York Coffee Festival again.
Last year, the festival was held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, which was not a good idea. The 69th Regiment Armory is an indoor venue with high ceiling but no AC! This issue became the source of many negative reviews and feedback to the festival’s organizers as the place got warm and people were sweating profusely, especially after few espresso shots. This year, the location was different and much better as it was held in the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th street between the 6th and the 7th Avenue. This place was better, cleaner and much cooler (climate wise).
One of the great things about this year’s festival is the fact that more manufacturers and more roasters showed up. More showing at these festivals, especially by equipment manufacturers, is extremely important. Currently, major distributors such as Seattle Coffee Gear and Whole Latte Love are spread out and they carry certain brands of machines, grinders and even cups so for the consumer who’s looking at different brands and would love to be able to compare them side by side (almost) and pull shots on both, a Coffee Festival or show maybe their best bet.
This year, I was excited to see Breville attending the show for the first time. They had their brand new Oracle Touch on display along with the Smart Grinder Pro (excellent grinder for the price point), the BES920XL dual boiler machine and of course their new coffee maker. Their staff (or the staff they hired for the show) was friendly and they let me pull shots, steam milk, and play around with the machine. While at the booth, I met one of my heros in the coffee industry and that is Chris Baca! I have been a big fan of Chris, I listen to his podcast, I follow him on Instagram (@realchrisbaca) and I watch his YouTube videos. Chris was down to earth and was open to taking pictures and really seemed like an even cooler guy in person than online!
On my way out they give us a bag with a microfiber cloth/towel on it to wipe the machine! Neat!
Also, attending the show this year for the first, is Commandante hand grinders from Germany. This was also great to see as the grinder is not sold by retailers I know and the show was one of the few opportunities to be able to touch it and play with it.
It is also important to note that some manufacturers from last year were also attending this year, which is always a good sign. Manufacturers include Bodum and La Marzocco. However, I noticed that some manufacturers were not attending this year, which I thought was a little disappointing as I’d personally love to see as many manufacturers as possible. Espresso Parts, Espresso Supply/Bonavita are among the ones missing this year. Also, it is otable to mention that some of the attendees this year had a weaker showing compared to last year, those include Nuova Simonelli. Nuova Simonelli last year had the Oscar 2 on display and they allowed guests to play with it and pull shots. This year there was none of that and the only Oscar 2 on display wasn’t even plugged!
The show also featured plenty of roasters from New York and elsewhere around the country such as Stumptown, Cafe Grumpy, Apes & Peacocks and others. Overall, the show was exciting and I can’t wait for next year and hopefully see more manufacturers on display!