8 July 2006
I JUST WANT you to know something else. I have right at three bucks in my wallet and only a bit more in my personal checking account. That won't change; it's ever been thus. But I have just purchased eight ounces of coffee for $18.95. This bean provides the best pour-over, drip coffee I have ever tasted—and will add—in my life. In my life. It's the Hamma Cooperative Yirgacheffe from Sacred Grounds. I mention it elsewhere on my coffee pages. The good folk of Sacred Grounds had put 12 pounds in reserve before their stock was depleted a few months back. And I, your coffee-seeker, just ordered eight ounces, the maximum amount an individual customer was allowed to order. All proceeds go to a school in Arcata, California. Good people at Sacred Grounds and the best pour-over coffee I have tasted. In my life. Please don't judge me; I only have three dollars.
7 June 2006
I JUST WANT YOU to know something. I’m not (I am not) going on about this stuff, not obsessing. You think that I’m going on? I’m not going on. I’ll tell you who goes on. The people on alt.coffee go on, oh, they do.
They are the boys and girls who go after this lovely espresso and other coffee stuff, and they do it with great caffeinated energy and brains and dedication. Technique, beans, machines, modifications.
That last one, modifications. To an espresso machine. My lovely Rancilio Silvia. Something to do with temperature stability.
Do you know what “PID” is? I’m getting ready to do my best to tell you, and you still won’t know. Nor should you. And shame on you if you already know.
And I did my best up there in the piney woods with that Krups. Ground my whole beans—god knows how old they were or where I got them—using a Zassenhaus hand grinder.
It’s safe to say that it was bad espresso that I made there given my level of expertise and the machine and the bean so let’s move along and forget the taste of that bad espresso.
LET'S MOVE to the machine that I now have, back in the city, a Rancilio Silvia espresso maker and a Rocky Rancilio grinder. Trust me when I tell you that “Miss Silvy” is excellent equipment, one step below the kind of thousand-dollar plus espresso maker that’s connected to the plumbing in your kitchen. I should also tell you that along the way, between that first Krups, in the mountains, and today, I have possessed or been possessed by both a Gaggia and a Solis Crema espresso maker.
Kindly allow me to pause here and speak of the Solis Crema. It just might be an instructive moment for it will tell of my dedication to making excellent espresso and will also hint at my obsessive nature, something that I should simply state in case it doesn’t become clear in what follows. By the way, I’m not apologizing for my obsessive nature because it’s what is required for the making of excellent espresso.
That first day with the Solis Crema was intense. The Crema was a peculiar Swiss (Swiss!) espresso machine with a little screen with microscopic holes that was to be inserted in the portafilter (handle that holds the ground coffee) and guaranteed by the Swiss manufacturer (Swiss!) to facilitate the making of a perfect espresso. And you should know that perfect in this context meant an espresso with great crema. Nice, thick crema—the foamish layer on top of a cup of espresso, thus its name, Solis Crema.
So on this intense day when the Solis arrived and to honor the investment and my obsessive nature, I made—and this is true—roughly seventeen cups of espresso. Seventeen. And even though I didn’t keep a record, I can assure you that they were all horrible. Some I only tasted but some I must have consumed. For that night I slept—if that's the word—not in our bed, but above our bed, with my fingernails clutching the ceiling. Toenails, too.
My dears, I was wired. Think of eyeballs rolling. Think of them rotating, in opposite directions. Yessir, I’m dedicated to my espresso. I seem to also remember my teeth chattering and the occasional yodel.
My memory is that I used the Solis Crema for a year or so and never made a really good espresso. Never. Lousy crema.The Solis Lousy Crema. I finally gave it away and was able to whine my way to my current machine, the Rancilio Silvia. One does not truly need a 500 dollar espresso maker, but I wanted one and have found that whining is very effective, and that Catherine is very sympathetic when I weep.
Nor does one truly need a 300 dollar Rocky grinder, but I wanted one and have found that whining is very effective, and that Catherine, etc.
SO YOU NOW UNDERSTAND something about inefficient (though Swiss) machines and something about the pathetic aspects of my character; but let’s move along to more pleasant considerations. Excellent espresso.
I believe that when atmospheric conditions are right and my humours in balance and when I concentrate and maintain a purity of heart and when I have a great machine, that I tend to make good to excellent espresso. And here I must say that there is art in the making of espresso, inspiration even. A well chosen song sung to the portafilter, a subtle dance, the right costume, all seem to help.
But there's also the matter of science and measurement and attention to extraordinary detail; and given all that, the man to study is David Schomer of Espresso Vivace in Seattle. And I did. From David Schomer and his website I learned how to measure and how to tamp. (I used our bathroom scale to determine what fifty pounds of tamp pressure feels like. Yes, I'm obsessive.)
But let’s move quickly on. It’s almost time for my afternoon espresso.
Okay, now for the bean and the blend. For several years I bought, every two weeks, from Mr. Schomer’s Espresso Vivace in Seattle their Dolce blend. By Priority Mail that usually arrived on Monday, and it was a great northern Italian roast. Thank you, Vivace for your blend and for your many courtesies.
But damn my rotating caffeinated eyes if I haven’t found, by way of Ken Davids' Coffee Review a blend that I like even more, the most extraordinary, okay, the most beautiful, espresso blend I have ever tasted. Belle Espresso from Coffee Klatch.
And even though I have been willing to order from Washington state and Illinois and Massachusetts, wherever I could find an attractive espresso blend, damn my coffee-stained forehead if Coffee Klatch is not in San Dimas, California and only forty miles from my Sherman Oaks stoop. Forty miles! It will come to me overnight by FedEx ground for about what I paid for five days from Chicago or Boston. Wonderful. Or I could even drive there. Drive there.
The Coffee Klatch espresso, highly recommended by Kenneth Davids (he gave it a 94,) again, is called Belle Espresso; and even though I thought that “belle” was only French (and what the hell do they know about espresso? *) it’s still the best espresso blend I’ve tasted, and I’m sixty-seven.
God I hope I can do it right. I’m tryin’. Mike Perry of Coffee Klatch told me the way it should be. Eighteen to nineteen grams of grind, the water at 200 degrees and the pull, the flow into the cup, should be at twenty-six to twenty-seven seconds. Oh, and the beans should de-gas for eight hours. That’s “de-gas,” and that means that you should leave the bag open for that amount of time before making the first cup. I’m working on all of those numbers and without precisely hitting most of them I am making excellent espresso. Excellent. Belle Espresso.
Mr. Perry is obviously as careful about his great coffee as I am obsessive about mine. My kind of guy, a craftsman. The best espresso I’ve ever tasted, and I've been drinking espresso since the sixties, like a mad man. ###
*Okay. I know; I know. On Ken Davids' Coffee Review site in his excellent reference section, we learn that the first espresso-like machine was introduced at the Paris Exposition of 1855 by Edward Loyel de Santais. Who was probably French. But the thing did not get going until Luigi Bezerra of Milan patented his machine in the eartly 20th century. And Luigi was definitely not French.
21 April 2006
WHERE HAVE I GONE WRONG? I was once a vegan, for god’s sake. Once I thought of giving it all up (not much) and moving to a yurt. I thought about going “off the grid” and growing my own potatoes, making my own vodka, wearing homespun, beating myself with a stick, rolling in the snow while cursing the impure world.
And now, oh, wretched excess, at this very moment on Friday morning, I am waiting for the delivery of 12 ounces of coffee, El Injerto out of the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala, that has been (I am sore ashamed) overnighted (oh, wretched access) to me from wonderful Terroir Coffee in Massachusetts. Because of my whine on these very pages about very low BOH. (That’s “Beans on Hand” in case you’ve forgotten, or have—oh, what’s it called?—a life.)
Yes, my whine.
My sister-in-law, dear Cynthia, she of Rooney the Cat, she of living across from the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, she of ice cubes in Rooney’s water and his nightly brushing, read my piece on coffee gone missing and has—oh, where is redemption?—rushed me twelve ounces of coffee. Overnight from Massachusetts.
I look for balance, oh, where is balance? (Too many “Ohs.”) Any misery in my life to counter the excess of sweet overnighted beans. From Terroir. El Injerto, “Best Overall” said the “Wall Street Journal.”
Here’s something. Flea bites. It’s flea season and one of my own wonderful cats while snuggling me of a recent night must have allowed (encouraged?) the illegal immigration of several fleas and they did gnaw away at my left arm and my left side. Little red bumpy things there now. Itch like hell.
Or if not flea bites, some pox is upon me. Did I mention? Itches like hell. And there’s also something on my back, a thing that’s okay my dermatologist says but it also itches at night. So much so that occasionally I have had to awaken my Catherine for a good scratch.
Oh, and here’s something else, in her solicitude, her energetic solicitude, (angry solicitude?) she has scratched my back in several places and as those scratches heal, yes, they itch. Like hell. Are we close to balance?
Twelve ounces of El Injerto from Terroir. Overnight. More balance is needed. Oh, where is more balance?
Something else. I walk Sherman Oaks sporting a walking stick and will on occasion get funny looks and even catcalls. Something about, “Viejo loco.” And SUVs are constantly at me; I know that they want me dead. Crosswalks have no meaning In Los Angeles. And I know that Hummers…
No, that is so speculative, more in the category of general angst or paranoia than what is needed here for balance. Something with heft, something granular. Granular, like ground coffee. Dish-washing granules!
I’ll ask you this: Have you noticed that a peculiar sweet-sickening citrus stench is beginning to pervade many household products? And if so, has it affected you the way it has affected me? I hate saying this in that you might be drinking wonderful coffee at this moment but have you gagged at the stench? Gagged?
I first noticed it with a spray-on general purpose cleanser. I told our friend who cleans for us not to use it, but she did anyway and for days I gagged at the stench. An off-citrus odor. And then yesterday—think of the horror—I bought a box of Cascade and it too has this odor. I did dishes last night and each time I have walked into the kitchen this morning I can smell this…stench. Terrible. And…
That will have to do. To hell with excess and guilt and balance. UPS just showed with my El Injerto, and I am quitting this whine to make myself a cup of Guatemalan in my sweet citric kitchen.
I wish you a wonderful cup; I'm having mine.
Thank you, Cynthia. ###
Go out there and clean the garage. Help your mate with anything your mate needs help with. Learn to cook. Call a needy friend. Get religion. Invent a problem and call Dr. Phil or Mr. Bill.
Because “PID” stands for “Proportional, Integral, Derivative.” Refers to espresso. Obliquely, but it does. It’s a method of obtaining and stabilizing a desired temperature within a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine by modifying the machine. And temperature control is very important when making espresso. Because you want an exact temperature, usually 200 degrees, when you pull the shot. (God, I hope that’s correct. The alt.coffee people could come after me.) And this PID thing, installed unit, this modification that the owner performs, whatever, controls the temperature by turning the heating element on and off as needed. Got it? To maintain the temp.
I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do. I am not going to spend 195 dollars for supplies and six hours of my life—six hours of my pre-electrocution life—in an attempt to modify Miss Silvy—that’s what the cognoscenti call the Rancilio Silvia. You know why? Well, yes, electrocution is a consideration; but it’s really because enough is enough even in this espresso business and besides there’s a workaround to getting the right temp.
Bleed off water through the steam wand until the heat lamp goes on. (Start, obviously, with the machine heated but the heat lamp off.) Look at your watch’s second hand. Begin to time 60 seconds. While you’re timing and Miss Silvy is getting hotter (sorry) grind the beans and tamp the damn thing, the portafilter. Lock and load (more cognoscenti stuff) and hope that just as you crank the handle of your portafilter into its loaded position the second hand has swept to sixty seconds. You should be in the neighborhood of 200 degrees. Pull the shot. Turn on the switch. Hope for the best.
Coming out like honey? Darkish. Fleckish crema? Smart boy. Smart girl. Drink up. If not, start over.
But oh my god the variables. Beans, grind, tamp, temperature, cats under your feet in the kitchen. Madness, you know, is a variable. Madness is a variable the constant of which is sanity. Or something.
No PID. No way.
19 May 2006
I FOUND A NEW WEBSITE for the would-be barista, the home barista. I found in other words a new website for me, the seeker, the wanderer, Mr. Espresso-Obsesso. It’s called Home-Barista.com and it won’t turn you loose. In fact, it will turn you every which way but loose. Did I think that I knew what I was doing? Oh, yes I did. Read the pretentious boasts on this very page. I even placed one of Catherine’s photos of my espresso machine and assorted equipment and called it “The Master’s Workbench.” Pride, oh, foolish pride.
Given such proclamations, why did I go back to my search to make the perfect espresso? (The true baristas call it The God Shot but I think I’ll call my efforts a search for The Darwin Shot in honor of the man, if not Man, and to make clear the personal and evolutionary nature of becoming a decent home barista. And also because God gets enough press and most of the shouting Godly don’t like espresso—too much like “make a joyful noise.”)
Where was I? Pardon the extended parenthetical, please. Oh, yes, I was speaking of why I had returned to online espresso study. Yes, it was because I was not doing justice to Belle Espresso. It’s hard to destroy its wonderful taste, but I was coming close.
I always attempt to correct a personal fault or flaw by buying something. Writing seem lousy? Buy a new computer. (In attempting to write this, I have my eye on the new little MacBook.) Espresso not working out? Blondy and bubbly? No decent crema? Sure, buy a new tamper. There’s a Reg Barber tamper that is so handsome, Rosewood handle, with good heft…See what I mean?
But before I found $55 for the Reg Barber tamper to ostensibly correct my blonde and bubbly espresso I came upon a link at espressoparts.com, where I was looking for the tamper, and that link took me to Home-Barista.com, and that site took me to an article within the site by John Weiss and he took me to a quote from Chris Tacy, “Ooooh,” I said. “And what does this say?”
“Distribution is the most misunderstood, neglected and really critical variable within your control. For good espresso, a requirement and the goal is to create an even density of coffee within the basket. [Oh, epiphanic moment!] For most baristas (professional or passionate enthusiast) this is where technique fails most noticeably... Keep in mind all the time what the goal is—to create an even bed (an even density of coffee within the basket). If you get this right, then your odds of correct extraction are going to go way way up. To be honest, everything else is less important when it comes to a constant evaluation. Tamp (for example) is not nearly as important as everyone seems to think. The goal with your tamping is to preserve the distribution and to create a firm enough surface."
Oh, frabjous day. I think I’ll have a vodka to celebrate. Sorry, no, forget that. Where was I?
Yes, distribution of coffee in the basket. And damn my bloodshot and caffeinated eyes if I didn’t try a technique that I found in the continuation of this article by Mr. Weiss and please pardon my espresso-flecked lips when I tell you that it worked. Better crema, better cup. Justice to Belle Espresso. Just today. Oh, Darwin! Was it good.
Now, I must admit that I did not use Mr. Weiss’s own coffee distribution technique, called, for some reason, the Weiss Distribution Technique, the technique that involved an improvised funnel and a dissection needle (you heard me, a dissection needle) in obtaining the proper distribution of ground coffee in the portafilter basket. No, I did not.
I just can’t. My marriage is so important to me and my cats have a way of looking at me. And it is such a—I’m sorry—bizarre technique in its complexity and implementation. A dissection needle, for Christ’s sake. Damn my brown teeth if I’ll use a dissection needle in making espresso, even a clean dissection needle, as stipulated. The decapitated and cleaned yogurt cup as a funnel was strange enough. By the way, that dissection needle is used to stir the coffee into uniformity after it’s been funneled into the portafilter basket with the decapitated yogurt cup.
And I recognize that Mr. Weiss’s technique might be the one, designed for the espresso newbie, fail-safe and guaranteed, and might give me the vaunted Darwin Shot, but I just can’t do it. And because Mr. Weiss was so thorough in discussing other techniques, I have returned, in my attempt to properly distribute coffee in the portafilter basket, to David Schomer’s “finger compression technique,” referring to the proper compression of coffee in the basket by using one’s finger prior to tamping and not, mercifully, to the compression of one’s finger. And, oh, Darwin, did it work.
Life's a journey, right? Do you love—oh, let me hear it!—but do you love espresso,the pure, un-glopped, unsweetened, lovely, thick-dripping-from-the-portafilter stuff? Then come with me on this journey. Who's buying the vodka?
14 May 2006
I'VE BEEN MAKING MY OWN ESPRESSO at home for at least ten years now and have been drinking it for much longer. I started drinking espresso in Birmingham, Alabama in the sixties. That’s a long time. Remember those early coffee bars, beatniks, and wearing black before the Goths?
And while you’re remembering, do you remember the early Coffee Bean, the one that was owned locally (the U.S.), the original and great Coffee Bean in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills? Or the pre-glop and pre-yup Coffee Bean in Studio City, California, a wonderful little shop with a smart maitresse and great clientele? Rex the cop, various actors, merchants? A salon with good espresso, if you will. Did I see you there?
Yes, that early Coffee Bean was great; and I enjoyed it, almost daily; but it’s a journey, right? Life? So Catherine and I somehow decided that civilization with its comforts and great espresso was evil and we embraced primitivism and moved to the woods. Where I had to learn to make my own espresso.
Okay, I heard what you just said; I heard. And here’s the answer. I must have thought that some things about civilization were good. Got it? Even though we were going primitive and moving to the woods I still needed my damned espresso. Don’t be a wise-ass. And I also missed the “New York Times,” so that must have been okay too about civilization. Let’s not talk about it.
I wanted my espresso and needed it too, I think; yes, that's it. And my sweet sister-in-law Cynthia sent me a Krups steam-driven, best-of-its-day home espresso maker so that I could have espresso in the woods. (She’s the same sister-in-law Cynthia who recently overnighted me a pound of coffee.)