Delving Deeper Into Coffee

Because I’m out of my mind, once I get something stuck in my craw, I’m not okay until I get it all figured out once and for all. I guess that’s why I’m a baker. Because I’m insane. When I got my new espresso maker, I became obsessed with that too, and I needed to figure out how to pull the best espresso out of it as I could, like they do in Italy.

So what did I do? I went to Italy.
Mais oui.


Although I got a lot of questions answered there, new ones kept popping up when I got home. And when I posted about my trip there were some enlightening comments, especially from Greg Sherwin of I clicked away, delving deeper into his site where there was much top-notch information and we began corresponding.

So I decided to ask Greg if he’d write a guest post here since he’s a veritable font of caffeinated knowledge, whereas I’m a mere coffee débutant.

Greg’s even more obsessed that I am in pursuit of a great cup. But I was especially impressed with his thoughts & opinions, and one of my favorite posts, Getting Serious About Coffee offers great advice to newbies like me, which included how much to spend on a machine, where to spend it, and what to buy (and more importantly, what not to buy). It’s required reading for anyone interesting in buying an espresso maker or even just brewing up a good cup of joe in the machine that you have. So I asked him if he’d like to expand on that topic here and he was delighted to do so.

Please welcome Greg from The Shot


Taking The Next Step With Home Espresso

The art of good coffee preparation is really the art of good cooking—it’s all about the proper time, temperature, and pressure.

The goal is to extract the good, flavorful elements from the coffee beans and leave the bad stuff behind. The reason so much of the espresso served in America tastes bitter is because most places over-extract their coffee: pouring longer and larger shots, as if doing us a favor, when in fact they’re just drawing more of the bitter, water-soluble elements into the cup.

If you have taken an interest in making quality espresso at home, the most common first step is to research some of the many home espresso machines now available on the market. However, there are three more critical elements to making good home espresso that few consider from the start — but should.

Freshness: “Of course the coffee is fresh.”

There are two kinds of people: those who clearly know that they’ve tasted fresh roasted coffee, and those who think they have.

When making espresso, you should use coffee that is as fresh as you can possibly get—ideally roasted less than one week ago. The bags of whole bean coffee you will find on most store shelves are typically several weeks old, so try to go to a local coffee roaster if you can.

Roasted coffee is a lot more like fresh baked bread than Lipton tea bags, which is how most of us treat it. If you wouldn’t buy croissants imported from overseas, stuffed in cans or in vacuum-sealed capsules, you wouldn’t want to buy coffee for your espresso that way either. Coffee starts oxidizing the moment it is roasted, leeching out its flavor. The smell of fresh coffee is quite literally the smell of its flavor escaping. Grinding roasted coffee accelerates the process by exposing the insides of the bean to air and multiplying its exposed surface area.

(It’s for this reason that the convenience of single-serving pod machines can only get you so far. And always be suspicious of anything where “cappuccino” or “ristretto” are considered flavors.)

Of all coffee preparation methods, espresso seems the most sensitive to the age of the roast. For example, the frothy brown crema on your espresso will noticeably degrade within just a week of roasting. If CBS ever produces CSI: Roma, using coffee beans from a crime scene they could make espresso in the lab to determine the precise moment of death.

Grinders: “What are they good for?”

Too often people spend hundreds of dollars on a brand new espresso machine and yet still use a $20 Krups coffee grinder. Most everybody treats the grinder as an afterthought, and a cheap grinder will completely throttle your espresso quality. By using poorly ground beans, that $400 espresso machine will only make espresso shots as good as a $100 machine.

A quality burr grinder, instead of a cheap “chop”-style grinder, is a must to ensure your coffee grinds are as consistent and as fine as possible for the best results. This undoubtedly will come as sticker shock, but I recommend that you spend almost dollar-per-dollar for a grinder as you do your espresso machine—up to about the $400 level.

Cleanliness: “You mean this isn’t a ‘self-cleaning’ oven?”

Using an espresso machine isn’t like seasoning a wok.

With use, the shiny metal parts of your machine (and any plastic ones) will acquire a yellowish-brown tint indicating the build up of coffee oils. These old, stale oils impart a rancid flavor to your espresso that will get worse over time.

Ask any pastry chef trying to get a stiff peak from egg whites when using equipment that isn’t clean of all fats: cleanliness counts. The solution is to clean your equipment frequently — at least weekly with regular use — using food-safe coffee oil solvents, such as Puro Caff. Espresso machines also require regular maintenance like automobiles. For example, replacing worn seals and gaskets about once a year ensures that the machine is operating in top condition and maintains the right brewing temperature and pressure.

Despite the many conveniences of modern home espresso machines, unfortunately there are no instant shortcuts to great espresso. As the International Association of Culinary Professionals) recently noted: “The need to enhance convenience often means a trade-off with other desirable goals.”

But if quality and flavor are your goals, following the above guidelines, as well as the tips below, should get you a long way there.

Greg’s Top 8 Home Espresso Making Tips

  • To do this right, it’s going to be expensive— plan to spend at least $400 for a decent espresso machine.

  • Buy your espresso machine from a specialist retailer. You’re not likely to come across the best brands at the bigger-name kitchen appliance retailers.

  • Just as important as your espresso maker is spending almost as much on a decent burr grinder. Most everybody treats the grinder as an afterthought, and a cheap grinder means an underperforming espresso machine.

  • Use coffee beans as fresh as possible—ideally less than one week since roasting. If you don’t know (or remember) the roasting date, it’s likely been several weeks.

  • Coffee is 98% water, so use filtered water to improve flavor and to prevent deposits from forming on your machine.

  • Clean your machine. Coffee oils build up over time and will make your espresso taste rancid if you don’t regularly use food-safe coffee oil solvents such as Puro Caff.

  • Perform regular espresso machine maintenance, such as replacing seals and gaskets annually to keep it operating in top condition.

  • Espresso should be short, naturally sweet, come with a foamy layer of dark brown crema, and it should have the consistency of a light syrup. If you think espresso is bitter, you’ve never had a proper espresso.

    Thanks to Greg for his insights and sharing his wisdom. For more tips, be sure to visit his coffee and espresso blog, The Shot and Coffee Ratings.

    Other online coffee resources:

    Coffee Geek: Informative, in-depth reviews of coffee makers and grinders.

    The Joy of Coffee, an excellent book by food writer Corby Kummer.

    Coffee Sage: Reviews and news for coffee-lovers.

    Starbucks Gossip site, with an especially damning barista rant.

    Fortune’s ‘bread-chocolate-coffee-yoga’ blog.

    Roast your own.

    Claiming to be the best, The Clover is the newest (and perhaps the most expensive) way to make coffee.

    Illy’s guide to making coffee by various methods.

    Recommended by several readers, the Aeropress promises a great cup for a fraction of the cost of other extraction methods.

    Wanna make your own espresso machine for less than 30 bucks?

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    • Steve
      April 2, 2007 10:33am

      Yikes. It’s easy to see why people go OUT for coffee in Italy. Sounds easier to prepare a meal for 6…

    • Bruce
      April 2, 2007 11:21am

      Funny, I spent more on my grinder (Rocky) than I did on my machine (Baby Gaggia). I purchased an Aeropress in my quest to make espresso when I’m away from home. Don’t believe the hype. It is by no means, an “espresso maker,” and the drink it produces is by no means “espresso.” What it does make, is a very concentrated syrup that can be diluted to make a strong cup of coffee, a somewhat suitable substitute when you’re waking up in a hotel room equipped with a hot plate and microwave and jonesing for caffeine. Although the complete lack of crema is what disqualifies the Aeropress drink as espresso, it does produce a remarkably smooth tasting cup, extracting a lot of the flavor profiles of each particular bean and roast. As far as I’m concerned, best bet for an espresso-like cup with out plunking down $400 is a stovetop brewer, or what’s commonly known as a moka pot.

      One other note…you haven’t reached true espresso geek-dom until you start researching how to PID your machine. If you’ve got a La Marzocco, PID-ing it can cost as much as a new grinder!

    • April 2, 2007 11:37am

      Bruce: That’s something that was quite enlightening for me, was that the grinder is as important as the machine. If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be shopping for a $400 coffee grinder, I’d say you were nuts!

      Now it’s down to the Mazzer Mini or the KitchenAid Proline burr grinder, which I saw in action and Greg told me was a great grinder for the money. Things are getting out of hand around here, but the coffee I’m drinking is getting better and better.

    • April 2, 2007 12:07pm

      warning: it’s a slippery slope. First, you get the fancy machine and fancy grinder. Then, you start roasting your own, and find that your whole kitchen has been taken up with coffee related instruments… five or so milk steaming pitchers, bags of green beans, little jars with little labels to note the date and beans roasted. And coffee grounds. Everywhere. It’s a never ending battle to keep the coffee grounds at bay!

    • Bruce
      April 2, 2007 1:46pm

      Having been a retail coffee/espresso machine buyer, and at one point, a Krups sales rep, I’d go for the Mazzer because they specialize in coffee, whereas KitchenAid does not. I also used to represent a home coffee roaster called Fresh Roast, and I spent a good 20 minutes every morning roasting my own beans (in the name of product knowledge – heh). You haven’t tasted anything until you grind your own home roasted blend…it’s truly a religious experience.

    • April 2, 2007 2:05pm

      L clearly caught the ‘slippery slope’ subtlety here. Many a kitchen countertop has been taken over, much domestic bliss has been wrecked, and many sleepless nights have resulted over an insatiable home espresso obsession.

      Each time the hapless victim thinks “just a better grinder”, “just a better machine”, or “I’ll roast my own for fresher beans”… but like a high stakes poker game, you have to know when to call it quits. Or at least when you think you have things “good enough”. Because the pursuit for something better can be endless!

      The good news, however, is that it doesn’t take too much of an obsession before you’re making just about the best espresso in town — wherever you live.

    • April 2, 2007 2:31pm

      I know the difference between good coffee and the average Joe, but I absolutely do not have the kind of money it would take to make high quality espresso at home. My solution is to buy great beans in small quantities roasted at a small local café and use a moka pot to make coffee. In the morning, this goes into a skim latte, and after lunch, I’ll usually just drink it black (both times most often made by my husband). We have no illusions that this is real espresso. When we want that, we go out, but not to Starbucks. I’ve come to accept that making espresso as good as at Illy headquarters is just not in my budget. If I did have the money, I think I’d rather spend it on the flashy ice cream maker.

    • April 2, 2007 3:37pm

      All this time I thought I was drinking good coffee, and it turns out it’s only marginal coffee. What a shame. I must now embark on a quest to find the perfect cup of coffee. And it looks like I’m going to have to brew it too. Oh well…

    • April 2, 2007 4:48pm

      hey david,

      thanks for the link! of course i have my quibbles. since when does “coffee” immediately equal espresso? there are beautiful single-origin estate coffees that show their most gorgeous flavors with simple drip brewing — you can get fantastic, perfect coffee with nothing more than a muslin sock and a jug, if you know how to brew.

      of course, everyone knows that i personally have $$$$$ in equipment myself, including 3 italian espresso machines. but you can brew top-notch coffee on a budget if you are willing to forgo espresso. french press, chemex, vac pots, melitta cones all can produce delightful coffee.

      if you are willing to haunt websites for buyers remorse and refurbished machines, or your local restaurant supply for a nice 1 group from a bankrupt cafe, you can even achieve espresso at a surprisingly affordable price.

      as for the aeropress, lemme second that “hype” emotion. it squashes all brightness from the bean — a shame, since in many origins brightness is a key attribute. i say skip it.

      happy coffee,

    • April 2, 2007 7:34pm

      But now we need a comprehensive guide to making the perfect steamed milk for you cappuccini, lattes and so forth. After all, how else will we all be able to do this?

    • elarael
      April 2, 2007 9:02pm

      When I lived in the wilds of Hawaii, the farmhands ( all college kids on summer break who work-traded on organic farms to lessen the expense of their vacation) who picked coffee would roast their own in cast iron frying pans on the stove and use a VitaMixer to grind the beans – to varying degrees of success.

      It was fun to experiment, but since this discussion is getting us all in deeper and deeper, could we have a post with more expert advice on roasting your own at home? If you live in the city, green beans aren’t so hard to come by if you’re a bleeding edge food freak, um, like we all are here, so it would be good fun to go there, wouldn’t it? Thank you !

    • Connie
      April 2, 2007 11:33pm

      Oh no now I need to get my own Guernsey for the milk !

    • April 3, 2007 2:01am

      David – once again I am really excited about all the recent espresso posts as my husband and I are also on the quest for high quality beverages. Lucky for us we know quite a few people in the coffee industry including a friend or ours who exports green coffee from his family in Guatemala (Finca Vista Hermosa)
      Sidenote – I would reccommend the Mazzer. We are borrowing right currently and are very impressed with the fine tuning of the grind, the ease and consistency.
      Thanks to your guest writer and for sharing your new found interest in high quality espresso.

    • April 3, 2007 3:18am

      Mary: I used to think that way too…but now I keep wondering to myself, “Why do I now have two professional-style espresso machines taking up my kitchen counter?”

      (I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, but I have at least 8 Moka pots I was playing around with. I now just use the Bialetti one for my morning café au lait.)

      Elarael & Lara: I wanted more info and that’s what I found at Greg’s site, which is why I invited him to come play over here. Although I’m getting a bit crazed in pursuit of the best coffee, I’m not ready…yet (although never say never) to start roasting my own beans.

      Connie: I think the grinding noise would be a lot easier to explain to the neighbors ; )

      To all: I never thought I’d spend the amount of time (or money) as I have. But if you’re going to, gulp, Starbucks once a day and spending $4, after a while it adds up. After a few months of withdrawl, you’ve saved enough for a decent machine.
      Keep going, and you can get the grinder too!

      The Mazzer Mini is expensive although I think at Greg’s site he lists a source where they’re hundreds of dollars cheaper than elsewhere. And who needs a week in Hawaii when you can have a spiffy new coffee grinder instead?

      Best of all is that most of these tips, like cleaning your machine or buying top-quality, fresh-roasted beans from a local source are very small steps that anyone can do no matter where you are, but will surely result in a far better cup of coffee or espresso.

    • April 3, 2007 5:34am

      David, Your blog is wonderful – the posts and photos are great. Just started my own blog and was also obsessing about illy coffee and my espresso machine – a FrancisFrancis X6 (from espressocoffeeshop). Love my new machine. Used to have a La Pavoni then a Saeco then a Moka and several Bialettis and this is the best one. It uses ESE pods but still makes a consistent espresso. Now I wake up every morning and have a perfect cappucino or espresso.

    • April 3, 2007 7:35pm

      We splurged on the Capresso 565.03 Infinity Burr Grinde but love the convenience and ease of the Aeropress. You can get really good espresso from it, but all the other factors have to be in alignment. We found that using medium roast coffee actually tastes best — Illy’s is quite good btw, and fresher coffee definitely gives better crema action. It shouldn’t be the absolute finest grind otherwise the filter gets clogged, and it helps to let the water sit for about 20 seconds and stir it fairly well before pressing it through. Another nice thing about it is that you can make a large amount of espresso all at once, for those of us who need a big cup of coffee in the morning.

    • Alan
      April 5, 2007 3:58am


      I’m glad to see you spread the coffee gospel here!

      And to all those who have taken or are about to take the plunge, it isn’t that hard or obsessive (the slippery slope dried up for me long ago). Here in France, I have a simple Gaggia Espresso machine that makes a great espresso and which cost me 100 euros (if you buy in Italy, $200 in the States), and in the US I have a Rancilio Silvia that while quite a bit more expensive doesn’t put the Gaggia to shame (although it does lattes, cappucinos, etc., better).

      And I use an old cheap burr grinder (solis maestro) to grind for the espresso and French press coffee (the press is cheap and makes a great cup). I plan to get a Mazzer mini or the llike when the solis dies. And.. I roast my own beans using a Gene Cafe roaster.

      Roasting on this machine is adjustable on the fly, without any problems to date and completely predictable (as long as you can vent easily). I source my green beans from Sweet Marias (avg $5 a lb)–and they ship to France.

      Oh, and let me add a #9 to Greg’s list: Be sure to make your coffee at the right temperature, however you’re making it.

    • April 5, 2007 7:43am

      Alan: I put the blame for this coffee extravaganza directly on you!

      I never thought I’d squeeze one of those big espresso machines in my tiny Parisian kitchen. Yet I now have two. I never thought I’d invest in a pricy burr grinder. Yet one’s on the way to me as we speak.

      But I’m definately drawing the line at roasting my own beans.

      I think…

    • April 5, 2007 6:31pm

      Yes, I agree you are insane but if it’s any consolation you’re not the only one….

    • April 7, 2007 6:58pm

      Thanks for the great post–and the comments, too. At first I was inspired to go buy a good espresso machine (I have one of those cheapos that sits in the cabinet and gathers dust because, you’re right, it make lousy coffee), then I read further and saw the equipment and bills piling up . . . and I’ve finished inspired to spend a lot more quality time at the great little coffee shop around the corner.

    • prav
      April 20, 2007 2:49pm

      Nice..roll..newbie to intermediate spresso.

      I’m in same boat. Take a look at my mods..

      I’m ready next year to drop 1500.00 on ECM GIOTTO