Coffee Rituals

By Sean Carroll | January 25, 2010 8:17 am

We’re long overdule for an open-type thread around here, so let me provide the excuse by asking one of the world’s great questions: what’s the best way to make coffee?

I’m an eclectic coffee drinker; I like espresso but also enjoy a really good cup of American coffee, and I prefer coffee black but am willing to adulterate it with milk if I suspect the quality is not going to be that high. (Sugar under no circumstances.) For the past few years I’ve relied on the lowest-effort method I know of that is guaranteed to produce a good cup: freshly-ground dark roast beans, placed in a simple cone filter and hot water poured right in. Practically instant coffee, but a result that can be as good as the beans allow.

S1CO But I’d like to start mixing more espresso into my home coffee experience, so I’m in the market for a new espresso machine. If I were a physicist of means, I might go for a work of art like the Elektra Micro Casa Lever on right. Or would I? This is a spring-action lever machine, which is to be contrasted with the manual levers, not to mention the automatics and super-automatics, and then there’s the matter of boilers, switches, heat exchangers … a complete mess. The pumps are certainly elegant, but I’d also like something that is functional and doesn’t require constant pampering. So I am in the unusual position of being frozen with indecision about what kind of espresso machine to get. Any opinions out there?

The ground rules here are:

  1. There’s no such thing as right or wrong; different people have different tastes, for which different approaches are appropriate.
  2. Answers with specific comparisons of advantages and disadvantages are more useful than simple insistence on truth.

I do understand that this is the internet and rules are unlikely to be followed, but I feel I should try.

Obviously not all advice on such a topic is too be trusted. The Engineer’s Guide to Drinks thread featured a sobering (as it were) number of people who think a “martini” should just be chilled gin rather than a proper cocktail, and were proud to admit it in public! So caveat lector. And if you want to talk about something other than coffee, be our guest.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Food and Drink
  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    “1. There’s no such thing as right or wrong; different people have different tastes, for which different approaches are appropriate.”

    Sean, such coffee relativism is disgraceful. I can only pray for your soul to discover the wonder of the One True Coffee Taste.

  • James Wilson

    My experience has been that what kind of coffee you use and how it’s roasted and ground are more important than the machine for most people’s purposes. I would choose a machine that would be easy to maintain and clean; if it’s too much work you will start to avoid using it.

    My own technique is very simple and machine-free: grind it as fine as possible with a burr grinder, use a lot of coffee — 2 heaping tablespoons per cup of water — heat it in the microwave until it just barely starts to foam up, and strain the grounds out with a sieve. There’s very little to clean and you don’t have to worry about buying filters.

    James

  • pablo

    Not technically an espresso machine – the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had (and have every morning) comes from my cheap AeroPress.

    I’m not an espresso connoisseur so can’t vouch for the quality of espresso it makes – but the coffee is outstanding. Playing with the water temp, grind (and amount), and steep time – you can dial in the perfect cup.

  • gio

    Try the ‘la Pavoni’ ones, also (http://www.lapavoni.it/line_det.asp?idf=1): similar to that one – the ‘Romantica’, particularly – different brand. I have one of those, the Professional – more sober, I don’t like too much baroquement. Wonderful machines, but a bit demanding, at least at the beginning: you must know the machine, and the kind of grinding, the thickness of the bean blend, before obtaining a true espresso. But it’s worth the work, at the end.
    A bit demanding as i said, and a sure piece of art in any case. If you want less machinery, try the non-lever, less expensive ones. La Pavoni is one the best brands in Italy, so you can check the site for other models.

  • http://twitter.com/ConstantineXVI Andrew

    I get beans from a small coffeehouse/roastery just down the street from my house (local == better IMHO), grind them in a cheapo $15 Mr. Coffee grinder, nuke my (filtered) water, and run it all through an AeroPress. Not quite real espresso, but good enough for me, especially considering my budget. As well, the AeroPress is a heckuva lot easier to clean, use, and store than a full-on espresso machine.

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    I’ll vouch for the Aeropress as well. Great espresso-like coffee, and if judging by espresso standards, better than many espressos I’ve had in coffee shops. Faster than brewing drip coffee, as well.

  • Pieter Kok

    I have a Nespresso machine on my desk. The coffee comes in air-tight capsules (one per cup), and I have small disposable cups of long-life milk so I don’t have to mess about cleaning protein residues. The taste is great, but perhaps not so environmentally friendly. I do have to control myself, otherwise I would be drinking coffee throughout the day.

  • Sam

    I like the Bialetti Moka Pot – tasty coffee made quickly with very little cleanup necessary. And lots cheaper than an espresso machine…

  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    I too like to use a filter–espresso grind. Time the grounds are in contact with the water is important. Less time, fuller, richer flavor: more time, accentuates the sharper, more bitter taste. To have a strong coffee without being bitter, double the amount of grounds per cup. Since I only make one cup at a time, means 2 heaping TBLS. Then only half a cup of water into the filter so it passes through quickly–fill the rest of the cup with hot water after.

  • jack lecou

    The cleaning and maintenance of most machines is going to be pretty similar -for occasional use, wipe/rinse the portafilter after use, clean it and the grouphead out with some coffee cleaner weekly or so. Descale the boiler now and then, maybe change some gaskets or something once in a blue moon. Hopefully, that’ll be about it.

    Beyond that, it’s really going to depend on your budget and enthusiasm…

    There are good automatic machines for less than a quarter the price of the Elektra. I think levers are classier though, and can’t be beat for ritual. And there are some affordable ones. I have a Gaggia Achille. It’s great in principle, but Gaggia seems to have a few design and build issues with it. Mine is working well now, but it took a little more TLC than maybe you’re into. (I think they’re out of production now, but there might be really good deals on refurbished units if you’re prepared to do a little tinkering.)

    I’ll also put a plug in for orphanespresso.com, where they sell a lot of lovingly restored vintage machines–sometimes great bargains– as well vintage espresso hand grinders, which are cheaper than electric, and a great morning ritual. I got nice hand crank wall grinder for myself, and a great old lever machine for my dad there, but you have to watch, as the stock changes constantly.

    (Also: roast your own green beans. All it takes is a hot air popcorn popper and a little trial and error. Doesn’t even take long. And though the batch-to-batch consistency probably won’t ever be great, the freshness and I-made-this-myself flavor can’t be beat.)

  • R

    Moka pot or french press at home, espresso in coffee shops, normal American coffee with American breakfasts. Making coffee in a moka pot is a nice but not too involved ritual and as #8 says, requires little cleanup. And it also spreads the coffee smell around the house quite efficiently compared to other methods.

  • Gabby

    Course grind and a french press for coffee but I do like a cone drip on occasion. The water should never be in contact with the grounds for more that a few minutes. I never cross the four minute mark for a three liter brew, go significantly less for smaller amounts.
    I see a lot of calls for a finer grind but you’re just begging for bitterness there. If you like a little bitterness, I’d still go with a courser grind but a darker roast. That will bring through the natural tones of the bean and still give you the bite.
    It is true that the grind and prep can be more important than the bean at times, but a good bean treated properly is heaven. Burr grinder should be at the top of your list. Avoid blades whenever possible.

  • Brent

    I will vouch for the Aeropress as well. It would be the cheapest option in any panel worthy of blind testing and would have a reasonable shot at winning.

    I notice you mention using freshly ground beans. While this is certainly good (ahem… necessary), you would probably be even happier further restricting yourself to freshly roasted beans.

  • Phaedrus

    Hey, a post I can actually contribute to (am not a astro-phycist-rocket-super anything, and the only thing I know about time is how to waste it).

    Opened a shop a few years back and part of it included an espresso bar. I was not a coffee person so I did my research and found a local coffee supplier that everyone raved about. The owner came over and trained me and people raved about the coffee.

    Here are the cliff’s notes :

    1. Your beans, of course – the road to good coffee starts at good beans :)
    2. Your grind – get your grind right – get a taste you like from a local store and ask if you can bring some of the grounds home to see the texture so you can match it. Slightly coarser for faster brew, finer for longer. If you are in a very stable environment then set this once and you’re good, otherwise you can adjust the grind slightly for temp/humidity differences (this is what you do 3 times a day or more in a coffee shop – grind, make a test cup, adjust, etc – if you don’t have breezy cold air blowing in an open door than you don’t need to do this day to day).
    3. Your machine – know how to adjust it. Too short and you’re wasting beans, too long and you get bitterness. Fiddle with this once – get it right, then adjust the grind for temp differences. Rule of thumb, good cup of espresso takes about 22-28 seconds.
    4. Clean – keep everything very clean, always.

    (I don’t know how this advice translates from commercial to residential machines)

    Like I said, I knew nothing about espresso – but following these rules of thumb we had die-hard Oregon espresso lovers complementing our product. It’s one of the few things I got right in that business… *sigh*

  • Joshua

    Rancilio Silvia. And get a rancilio rocky grinder. The grinder is as important as the machine. This is the cheapest best quality espresso machine you will find. You will have to learn how to pull shots on it, but once you do you will be rewarded. Intelligentsia sells this one, and you can find it online for less.

  • Somite

    Taking together cost, ease of use, size and taste I went with the Starbucks Sirena. It is really a re-branded italian espresso machine and the integrated thermometer is very useful for making kid-temperature or scalding Americanos.

    I do want to try a hand-pumped machine although I hear they can be quite temperamental.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/sunclipse/ Blake Stacey

    The Engineer’s Guide to Drinks thread featured a sobering (as it were) number of people who think a “martini” should just be chilled gin rather than a proper cocktail, and were proud to admit it in public!

    Just gin? We did say you need an olive, too, you know.

  • Katharine

    Coffee sucks ass.

  • http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics Jennifer Ouellette

    i like the fancy steam punk espresso maker because i’m all about teh superficial. :)

  • Katharine

    According to the vaunted Tom Lehrer, the proper ratio is six parts gin to one part vermouth.

  • Thanny

    Get a pump espresso machine with 13 bars of pressure.

    And for the record, if there’s no dry vermouth in there, it’s not a martini. Though one can almost forgive Churchill, who is said to have described the perfect dry martini as drinking a glass of gin while looking at a bottle of vermouth.

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisyrose

    I go for the cone – filter – hot water – however I have had a *good * cup of coffee twice in my life – its perhaps like smoking crack Cocaine after one time you will do anything and everything to recreate the experience and it never happens.

    I mostly drink tea.

  • Fenn

    For those who don’t sweat signalling, one heaping spoonful of Nescafe’s Clasico instant (the kind they market to Mexicans–coupla bucks cheaper), a splash of milk and a pack of splenda.

  • Doug

    Bedouin coffee (as I’ve heard it described by several Iranian students, no idea if Bedouins actually follow the recipe):
    1. Take your roasted beans, grind them as normal.
    2. Put in a pan, fill with about twice the amount of water you’d normally use for american style coffee.
    3. Put over heat, bring water to a boil, and continue until the water is boiled off.
    4. Pick out any solid chunks (shell fragments, etc).
    5. Add same amount of water as in step 2, and repeat steps 3 and 4.
    6. Repeat step 5 again.
    7. Eat the resulting paste.

  • Robb
  • http://www.ungerink.com Kimberly Unger

    I have to admit, my tastes swing from the froofy to the plain depending on where *everything* else is at the moment.

    My current favorite way is to get an old-style aluminum/cast-iron stovestop expresso maker and load it with expresso-ground coffee (give you something halfway between expresso-strength and black-coffee strength). Gives you two small cups that are great with about 4tsp of sugar in them, or are perfect for loading iwth milk for a latte.

    -ekim
    http://www.ungerink.com

  • http://garrettlisi.com Garrett

    A good cosmic variance post always perks me up; but since I don’t drink coffee, this one filled me with bitterness. Really put me in a black mood. Felt like I’d bean mugged. Totally creamed. So I thought it necessary to espress this, before I get back to the grind, even if it’s made me a little latte.

  • John

    Here is a somewhat earlier “blog” post from the Royal Society…

  • http://www.7duniverse.com Samuel A. (Sam) Cox

    Nobody said anything about that coffee-maker! I guess everybody has used one like it.

    I was told many years ago that the first thing I should do when visiting a new restaurant was to try a cup of coffee- and then order or not order accordingly.

  • Jenna

    I vote Moka Pot too – cheap, little fuss, you can make several cups at a time, and there are only three bits to clean (in addition to any reusable cups). We’ve had one for years, and used it on many different cooking surfaces without any troubles.

    #27 – I take that approach to sushi places. I try the salmon and tamago nigiri, and then go from there.

  • Susan

    I learned somewhere that unfiltered coffee leaches calcium from your bones. Can’t really verify that, but sounds possible. That is why people started adding milk, to add back in the calcium. Most people over a 100 years old drink coffee. The YOU doctors ( Roizen and OZ ) say 16 ounces of coffee a day is ok health wise. If you drink more that 2 (6 ounces ) cups a day, and you stop you can get mild withdrawal, like a headache, which you could treat with Excedrin, which has caffeine. If you drink a ton and stop suddenly, you can feel like you have the flu. So I advise you to keep drinking it, and enjoy it. I have in the past had coffee most mornings at a nice independent coffee shop. Then I bought a medium priced espresso machine.(to save money) The coffee was great, but I found out I had not just been buying the coffee. I had also been buying the experience. The whole place smelling like coffee (they had a roaster in the shop ), the cheerful people, the anticipation etc. The machine was messy and it took to much time to clean it up. It also took up a lot of space on my counter. I gave it to my son. ( so much for saving money) Now I just drink a pod coffee, but have the echo pods so I can put in any good coffee I want. I should filter it but don’t. Caffeine makes you sweat more, increaes acne , agitation and mania and other negative things, but I think it is worth it! I’m not implying anything and don’t mean to ruin a good cup of coffee, but I’m a chemical dependency nurse and can’t resist teaching.

  • gio

    Samuel: you’re absolutely right. A good cup of coffee is an optimum business card for a bar or a restaurant.
    Illy: http://www.illy.com/wps/wcm/connect/US/illy/. Without need of buying coffee in grains – thing that i do, anyway – Illy it’s an excellent coffee maker. He does even expresso machines, by the way.

  • gazzaj

    As long as you’ve got good beans and grind them yourself, how you brew the coffee isn’t really going to affect the taste all that much, it’s more about how strong you want it.

    I’ll either just use a plunger which turns 3 heaped spoons into two good cups, or fire up the stove-top percolator which turns 3 spoons into an espresso-strength half cup.

    The best coffee I ever had was in Thailand, hand-ground percolated ice coffee that took 3/4 hour to make. Though the 2 joints the barista would roll and smoke with you while you waited may have had something to do with the taste :-)

  • steeleweed

    1) Best beans – a matter of personal taste

    2) Roast your own? I’m not that talented, so I get coffee that was roasted the same day they shipped – overnight, vacuum-sealed. Basically, roasted yesterday or the day before. Even those I know who do roast their own, don’t necessarily roast every day, so mine is as fresh as most.

    3) Use a French Press.

  • Fill

    @Susan
    It’s not entirely clear that milk is a good source of calcium anyway – the studies I have seen show milk consumption as a risk factor for (among other things)osteoporosis.

  • spyder

    I have used a variety of Primula and Bialetti stainless steel espresso pots for the last 30+ years (and i currently own all four sizes).
    I use a personal mix of Boyd or Hammer coffee beans (organic espresso/italian/french roasts) ground to slightly coarser than fine.
    I use cold filtered clear water, and heat the pot over a medium gas flame. The steam pressure pushes up through the coffee giving me a pristine cup (usually 16 ounces) of espresso-like coffee
    I add a small scoop of chocolate ice cream (Hagen Dazz Amazon Valley Chocolate) and some organic chocolate soy milk.
    I start my day.

  • bareesta

    In order of importance for a good cup of coffee (highest to lowest):

    1) Amount of coffee. Sounds obvious, but hey.
    2) Grinder. You need a consistent grind. You need a consistent grind. You need all your coffee ground the same way. You need a consistent grind. Sometimes it needs to be coarse (French Press), sometimes fine (cone filter), sometimes miniscule (espresso). But always…you neeed a consistent grind.
    3) Water temperature. This is totally a personal thing (there’s advocates from 165 – 205 F), but never put in boiling water. No one likes that. The easiest way to find your favorite repeatable temperature is to boil a set amount of water, bring it to a boil, and time how long you take it off the boil.
    4) Type of bean. I’m talking country of origin, basic facts like acid content, etc.
    5) Roast. Don’t get too carried away with this; it’s important, but all of the above will make you a better cup of coffee more consistently than this.

    As for devices, again, it’s a matter of taste. Sean’s pour-over method is a good one, and a cheap one. The most important thing a brewing device does is control how long the bean is in the water; roughly, more time=more acidity (not necessarily more strength).

    The Aeropress is popular because it extracts all the flavor and hardly any of the acidity, (since it brews so quickly). The cone filters operate better when the water level is consistently high, that the water escapes more quickly at the bottom. Of course, you can’t keep the water up to the brim of your filter forever, unless you keep it full and transfer the coffee to the sink or another cup once you’ve filled yours. When I use the pour-over method, this is typically what I do.

    But the best-kept secret in all of coffee land is: vacuum pot coffee! These things are really cool to watch, very fun (though a little labor-intensive/time-consuming) to use, and make outrageously good coffee. If Isaac Newton drank coffee he’d make it in one of these puppies.

  • Lawrence Kuklinski

    Hello,
    Last year I purchased an expresso machine.
    The unit I chose is sold by Starbucks.
    Their coffee is exceptional, and I reasoned they would sell a reliable expresso machine.
    Good machine for the price- $399. $599 last year!
    I use it daily.
    Watch the videos on the site for information and recipes.
    In addition to Starbucks coffee, try Peets brand.
    They taught Starbucks the meaning of premium coffees.
    Below are links:

    http://www.starbucks.com/flash/sirena/default.htm

    http://www.peets.com/

    Regards,

    lkuklinski

  • sally

    i acquire an espresso roast from the local roaster; mood indigo, by name. grind it for about three days in advance to a fine grind. i use large french press and scoop 1/2 cup of grounds into the bottom with 6 t. demerarra sugar. pour in hot water and set on top of the wood stove to keep warm. drink. yum..

  • Anonymous Snowboarder

    @Pablo – you beat me to the punch. I’ve had the aeropress for almost two years now (and still on my first batch of filters!) and it makes great coffee. Every once in a while I’ll drink it like espresso but I take a little milk in my american coffee most days.

    Besides a great tasting single serve of coffeee, that filter will save your heart when compared to a traditional french press.

  • gazzar

    Perhaps your recent visit to my home of Melbourne reminded you of how good coffee can be.

    +1 for Joshua’s advice to get a Rancilio Silvia +Rancilio rocky grinder. If you want to be a bit more geeky, get a PID temperature controlled Silvia.

  • Sarah

    I agree with gazzar/joshua: the Rancilio Silvia would be an excellent investment — you can’t go wrong there, provided you know how to use it. Great machine. But if you’re going to get an espresso maker, you’ve gotta learn how to use it! No sense in spending all that money to drink over-extracted espresso all the time.

    I’m also a fan of the moka pot. At various times in my life I’ve had a single-serving one, a 2-serving one, and a 6-serving one (all bialetti), and I’ve found that I get a better espresso from a smaller rather than bigger one. Not sure why.

    I also have a beautiful side-by-side vacuum pot (from these guys: http://royalcoffeemaker.com ) that is gorgeous and a fun party trick, but it is more akin to pour-over or french press than espresso.

    Coffee *does* taste different when you make it in different ways…. you may find that what you are used to enjoying as pour-over isn’t your favorite in an espresso maker or a moka.

    Finally, in case you feel like you need to improve your pour-over w/ chemex coffee skilz, Intelligentsia offers this advice: http://www.vimeo.com/6161817 … and then of course there’s also this: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/01/09/how-to-brew-a-good-c.html ;-)

  • Susan

    Fill, Have not heard that about milk. But there are lots of studies that take awhile to get to the mainstream. If someone is at risk for osteoporsis, they have probably been advised to take a supplemental calcium. It’s just a bit of coffee history.

  • http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~rkirshner/ Robert Kirshner

    Sure, you are biology, but don’t you want coffee that seems like chemistry, not physics? After all, this is food, not a force field. So….
    GET CHEMEX!
    The beautiful device that looks like a light cone of the past and future.
    Except it has a nice wooden throat to grasp (insulation!) and leather laces to hold it tight (affectation!)

    Nifty filters that look like they came from a chemistry lab, personal application of the not-quite-boiling water, observation of the stream that becomes a drip, Sean…this is you!

    And… excellent coffee, if you will please pay for, store properly (the Carnot refrigerator not the Kelvinator) and grind the beans the minute before placing them in the “future” cone.

    But, be careful not to whack the rim against a faucet. Dink!
    Ach! I am SO CLUMSY!
    Now you have another wooden ring with leather laces. Too big for a ring, too small for a necklace. Store it with the other souvenirs of clumsiness past.

    And just go get another…
    CHEMEX

  • Jim

    I am 100% behind poster #3 pablo and a few others that posted – Aeropress makes the best coffee. I got rid of my pump espresso maker and my French press after I got my Aeropress. I keep a drip maker for bulk when entertaining more than a few guests, but when people that I care about visit, they get the Americano cup. Recently roasted (allow 24 hours for off gassing) beans, French, Italian or Espresso roasted make a very strong cup with no bitterness. Well, no bitterness to me. All things are relative. I do love a good shot pulled from quality beans and a quality machine, but for everyday? It’s an Aeropress. And a collateral benefit is its portability – a friend deployed to Afghanistan took his and swore it kept him sane.

    I am not thrilled with vacuum pots, other than entertainment value – my parents had one when I was very young and the only good thing I can say about it is that is was not the percolator they also used! But taste is in the tongue of the beholder.

  • steeleweed

    Alternate to Doug’s Bedouin coffee is Colorado ranch style:

    Big enamel pot full of water.
    Large can of ground coffee.
    Horseshoe.
    Boil until horseshoe comes to the top.

    Drink – or use for sheepdip – or to dehorn cattle – whatever your need of the moment.
    :-D

    There was (is?) a coffee house in Monterey CA that served a Turkish coffee with a stick of cinnamon – standing up in the mud.

  • George

    I consider myself a picky espresso connoisseur (i.e., a snob). I’ve been quite happy with a simple Starbucks Barrista pump-driven machine; they are actually made by Saeco in Italy, and I think that they are a good value.

    But I have to agree with what many others have already said: good, freshly ground coffee is more important than the machine.

    Fresh coffee (properly ground) + fresh water + clean machine = good coffee.

  • http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/~viero/ Marco Viero

    If you want good Italian style espresso, the most important things are the grind, the machine, and beans that work well with your machine, with equal weight. The machine, unfortunately, must be very expensive, or don’t bother. Sounds silly, but it needs to have the ability to get up to extremely high pressure, and only expensive machines can do that and not break (in my experience). And bad espresso is not worth drinking, might as well go Bialetti or french press. Gaggia Classic should be the low end of your search. Don’t forget that a good grinder is not cheap either. And of course, buy a timer and have it turn on your machine a couple hours before you are going to use it. In Italy there it is often said that any bar (that’s coffee shop in Italy) worth going to has its machine on all through the night, but I could not in good green conscience advise that! Good luck!

  • gazzar

    I forgot to inject a tiny bit of science into my rely above. Sean, if you do go down the espresso machine path, I recommend reading Ernesto Illy’s SciAm article. My own espressos really improved after reading it.

    Illy, E. The complexity of coffee. Scientific American, 286, 86, 2002
    which is cited by this other physics-related article:
    King, W. The physics of a stove-top espresso machine, American Journal of Physics, 76, 558, 2008

  • Brian Mingus

    I have happily switched from coffee to my grocery store’s brand of caffeine pills. The benefits are that they are fast, effective, you know the exact dose you are getting, and extremely cheap. The equivalent of 30 cups of coffee is only $1.50. The possible downsides are ulcers, and studies have shown that the optimal way to drink caffeine is to ingest it slowly all throughout the day. Both of these downsides can be remedied by purchasing slow release tablets. Additionally you may drink coffee because you like the flavor but as a die hard research scientist or theoretician you will appreciate the extra time you have to focus on work.

  • mjm

    The guides (in particular the buying guide) at coffeegeek.com are really excellent. For my part, I have an ECM Giotto paired with a Mazzer Mini grinder. I rarely drink anything but espresso-based drinks because of this stellar combo, such that pour-over or press coffee is an unusual treat. The Giotto is 7 years old and going strong; I do plan to replace its vibe pump with a procon rotary one at some point. I usually recommend the Silvia to people, and the Baratza grinders.

  • J.J.E.

    @ Sean

    I endorse those who recommend Bialetti products, provided you are willing to compromise for “merely” good quality coffee in exchange for reasonable effort and price.

    Note, Bialetti coffee won’t produce the fine quality of crema that even a medium quality espresso machine will give you. Even though they have a product (the Brikka, I believe it is called) that does give some approximation of crema, it just doesn’t stack up in a side-by-side taste competition with a good machine espresso. The crema of the Brikka is much less persistent. It will dissolve back into the coffee, unlike espresso machine crema, which will dry to the side of your cup if you neglect to drink it with the black part of the drink.

    HOWEVER, I think Bialetti is a great compromise. They can be stove-top (preferably gas) or plug-in electric and are easy to setup and clean and, once you’ve gotten the hang of them, can do a quite decent approximation of espresso and can do excellent Americanos and give coffee that to me is superior to your average drip coffee. A cafe au lait, latte, or cappucino with Bialetti “espresso” is nearly indistinguishable (to my palette) from those made with drip machines or espresso machines (depending on the drink of course). The Americanos made from Bialetti espresso are also darned good, though you can tell the difference. The biggest compromise is in straight espresso, though in my opinion, it is often worth the compromise.

    The biggest trade off is the smoothness of the espresso. So, if you like neat, unadulterated velvety espresso, and you most enjoy licking the frothy crema off of your lips after downing a shot of espresso, then the Bialetti isn’t for you. If you can get by with a hint of crema, then I recommend the Brikka. If you don’t care about crema that much, but want a nice concentrated coffee with good flavor, the Moka Express line is for you.

    I’ve owned both the Brikka and Moka Express and have done side-by-side comparisons with several good coffee establishments in Hyde Park. Of course, other than quantifying the texture of the coffee and quality of the crema, my taste conclusions are inevitably subjective. (I’m a U of C grad school grad, so you know my frame of reference. And no, I’m not using Salonica or Valois in my comparisons. Think more along the lines of Medici coffee.)

    A few final notes about Bialetti. The most important one is that getting the grind of the coffee and the level of heat for the Brikka and Moka models is important. Too coarse or too fine will make the coffee not so good. Also, too high a flame will make bad coffee and too low a flame won’t make coffee at all. There is a bit of an art. So I suppose it must be mentioned that some (minor) training will be required before you are satisfied. This is a tradeoff worth factoring into your decision.

  • Jason Power

    Just doing my best to find the best coffee prepared by others in my home town of San Antonio, Tx, and saving my money for far too many far off gadgets, I look to the expertise of others. I trust Martin Lersch:

    http://blog.khymos.org/2008/11/11/wonders-of-extraction-espresso-part-i/

    He has Miss Silvia making his espressos (and even scrambled eggs!)

    Looks like we all have so much input and so many opinions to go through in this blog post! Thanks all; it’s good shared wisdom.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    As Abraham Lincoln said, if this is coffee, please bring me some tea, but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    We got a Rancillio espresso machine as a wedding present, and it has been working flawlessly for the past 7 years (knock on wood).

  • cope

    The water is important, too, don’t forget. Clean, cool, filtered water…canister filter, reverse osmosis, whatever, just be sure the chlorine and other major flavor detractors are removed.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ve owned two Illy Francis Francis machines, and have been quite happy with the espresso. They have their drawbacks, but I very much like the X1 I have now, and, although not the primary reason to buy a given machine, they are extremely pretty.

  • Rich

    I’ve been very happy with my Aeropress as well. It doesn’t make much volume, so like Jim, above, I also have a filter (drip) machine when I need a pot full for friends. Very smooth coffee with little bitterness (also helped by using water that is below boiling). Quick and easy to make, trivial to clean up, takes up no space on the countertop, and cheap to boot.

  • Matt

    OMG. I can’t believe I missed this thread. Two of my daily rituals, espresso and CV. The best internet resource for espresso help, bar none, is home-barista.com.

    That elektra is rumored to be amazing. As is the gaggia achilles. I’m a big fan of the lever machines in general, as it makes it cheaper (and more fun and ritualized) to pull a perfect shot.

    You can’t really go wrong with a lever machine. I myself bought the very very cheapest one i could find, (the gaggia factory – also sold as the la povoni europcola or something like that). And I love it. It gets a bad rap for overheating, which it does if you pull more than 2 doubles in a row. But I rarely do that, so it’s great for me.

    Whatever you get, be prepared to fiddle. It took me 6 weeks of daily use to finally pull an amazing shot. You have to dial in the grind and the dose of coffee exactly right to really get a great shot with lots of crema.

    The general rule of thumb, unfortunately, is to spend more on the grinder than on the espresso machine. Which is entirely unsexy and irritating advice. But it’s solid advice. Most of a good shot is in the grind. And you need a high dollar grinder to get consistent, fine grounds for espresso, with no random big chunks to kill the necessary pressure. Even a little off, and you’ll get channelling in the puck, which makes for a bitter shot.

    Or … you can do what I did, and spend $100 on a german conical burr hand grinder. Adds more time, and more ritual, but it doesn’t cost $1000. And it’s kinda fun.

  • Carl Robitaille

    Buy a great grinder first! Then worry about what espresso machine to buy. Even your drip coffee will taste better.

    I learned that a few years ago on alt.coffee. Reading the alt.coffee archive at groups.google.com for a couple of months before jumping in would be a good starting point. I know… who’s got the time… ;-)

    Also, a website started by a (former) contributor to alt.coffee is providing good information in general about espresso and coffee in general:
    http://coffeegeek.com/

    He reviewed the “Elektra Micro Casa a Leva” in 2002:
    http://coffeegeek.com/proreviews/detailed/microcasaleva

    P.S. My grinder is a Mazzer Mini, and it’s one of the best things I bouth… ever.

  • Clay

    Here at our roastery, we utilize a number of different methods to get our jones satisfied, and I’ve discovered it really depends on the bean. Our East Timor Maubesse really shines in a Chemex, whereas the Washed Sidamo we just received tastes the best so far out of a regular old airpot brewer – basket filter, hot water pumped from city line through our filter. We try to taste all our varietals and blends as many ways as possible, starting with the cupping room and working our way through Chemexes, French Presses, pour overs, the airpot brewers, home coffee makers, the smattering of Starbucks espresso machines on hand for caterings and our precious Red Ranger – the Rancilio S27 that still manages to pump out shot after jitter-stimulating shot.

    The bottom line – it truly depends on the bean. Take away all other variables, and let the bean tell you how to smash it and boil it and extract its delicious essence.

    By the way, in my experience, a coffee is best starting about 36 – 48 hours after roasting – it’s old enough to have degassed a sufficient degree but young enough that oxidation hasn’t really affected it and that it still contains all the idiosyncratic and lovely volatile aromatic chemicals that distinguish one varietal from another….

  • CoffeeCupContrails

    And at this juncture, I present Sean with Barry Schwartz’s TED talk: The Paradox of Choice.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice.html

  • Pingback: Making Coffee | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

  • Toni

    What’s lacking here ironically is any facts. Lots of people say the grinder is the most important part of the process. Based on what? I can’t think of a really good scientific reason for that to be the case but I’m willing to be convinced. Nor can I see how differences in pressure, given some range, make a difference either. I CAN see a reason why the coffee bean would make a huge difference. But in our gadget driven world that’s not terribly exciting to talk about. And even that’s a huge variable. I’ve had great espresso beans from Starbucks and awful ones.

  • bareesta

    to 64:

    Each brewing process needs a different grind that complements that brewing process. The French press requires a coarse grind so that, when pressed, as few of the grinds as possible make it into your cup. But a cheap blade grinder (one of those little Cuisinart deals with the press down top) will chop up some of the beans (nearer the center of the apparatus) much more finely than other beans. Now, since you’re using a French press you’ll be steeping the beans for about 3.5 minutes; that’s a good amount of time to extract flavor from a big, coarse ground, but it completely leaches the smaller grinds that your cheap blade grinder left you, which leads to an acidic taste.

    Similarly for other brewing methods. Coarse chunks in the pour-over method, for instance, just don’t have enough water time to brew; and the more consistent the grind the fuller and more consistent the flavor you’ll get. The grind is perhaps most important for espresso. It needs to be super super fine so that you can compress it evenly, allowing the steam to pass through the puck evenly under great pressure. Even one bad ground can ruin a shot of espresso (as mentioned in #59).

    But ultimately the proof is in the tasting; there’s no way to believe it until you’ve actually invested in a good grinder and figured out how it works. And I’ll say that that’s the single most important investment you can make in your coffee experience.

    Alternately you can grind the beans where you get your coffee and put them in the freezer when you get home; the grounds won’t be as fresh as grinding them yourself, but if the choice is between a good grind two weeks ago and a cheap blade grind today I’d say take the former.

  • Ami Silberman

    We have a Capresso 1300 (which is now a long obsolete model) automatic. We usually brew the full 7.5 oz cup (essentially espresso with more water), and find it wonderful. At this point, it has made us nearly 6000 cups of coffee and never needed service, although lately the two nozzles don’t dispense at the same rate (probably needs more thorough cleaning). It automatically grinds the beans, but you can use pre-ground as well (which we use for decaffe). Among some of the handy things you never thought of that it can do:
    1. Even your guests can use it, so you don’t have to brew coffee for them.
    2. Since you can have a pour as little as .5 oz, you can get ultra strong coffee for baking deserts.
    3. Frother is great for making hot chocolate.

    I think that lever-pulls are better, but you need to train and keep in practice. Plus your guests will expect you to serve them.

    If you don’t go with an automatic, spend the money on a burr grinder if you will be making espresso. For drip it isn’t quite as important though.

    Don’t go for the coffee pods — the coffee is more expensive and you have little control over strength.

  • Matt

    @64, re: pressure. It only matters with espresso, but with espresso, it’s the prime consideration. Pressure IS espresso. 9 bar, specifically. The intense pressure forced through the puck of coffee is what creates the crema and the flavor. And getting the pressure right is a function of two things: the dose of the coffee, and the grind. Those two variables interact a bit – you can put a little more coffee in the puck if you grind it a little less finely, and vice versa. When you don’t have enough pressure, you can see it as the shot pulls – the coffee shoots out very quickly, thin and light. And you’ll see a crack in the puck of coffee when you remove the portafilter. That happens a lot when you don’t have a good grinder – too many big, uneven chunks in the grind – they’re not nestling together well to resist the coffee flow evenly. But most importantly, you can taste it. As straight espresso, it’s almost undrinkable. But a shot pulled correctly is amazing. It’s sweet, rich, nutty, and not at all bitter or overpowering. There’s nothing like it.

    Pressure is also the reason most of the sub $1000 non-lever espresso machines are a joke. There’s just not enough power in those things to get to 9 bars. And most of them have a little spring frother to sort of fake the crema. Below $1000 the only real espresso machines you can buy are lever machines.

    You are right about the beans. Some of the best beans for filtered coffee make absolutely terrible espresso. When you’re starting out, it’s best to stick with one bean you know is capable of good espresso and master that before experimenting with others.

  • Timothy
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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