My (current) coffee station

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For the last few months (since mid-July) I’ve been going through a lot of upgrades and troubleshooting on my coffee setup, especially as far as espresso is involved. I’m finally at the point where I’m happy with both the equipment and technique I have… or at least I think I am.

Here are the products I currently use, and the techniques I’ve found to get the most out of them. As usual, I have affiliate links for many of the products on display, but feel free to search for the best deal or the vendors you prefer.

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ESE pod review: Caffe Pompeii Circe 100% Arabica

The Caffe Pompeii Circe (which is labeled as “Gusto” on the pod envelope) is one of the pods that Podhead sent me as a sample. Being fully-caffeinated I was hesitant to drink it (as caffeine hecks me up something fierce), so for the sake of this review I only did a single 16g shot.

This time I used my standard portafilter, so I don’t know whether there was channeling. However, the resulting coffee tasted smooth and well-balanced, and I definitely recommend this one wholeheartedly if you want an ESE pod to brew and don’t have any reason to avoid caffeine.

An hour later I had jitters and a panic attack, as expected. Oh well.

Gusto Decaf Polifemo

When I ordered a bunch of ESE pods for this ongoing ESE pod experiment, PODhead sent me a few samples of a few other pods. This is one of them. Oddly, I couldn’t find this particular one anywhere on their website, although a websearch turned it up, so it’s probably just something weird about their site navigation.

Also, given some of the extraneous slug text on the link, I worry about whether the links will remain active in the long term as their stock changes. If anyone from PODhead wants to let me know about what’s going on with that, it’d be greatly appreciated!

Anyway, they only gave me two pods, so I can only do a two-shot evaluation. For my first shot I went with a lungo, which I managed to get exactly 21g out. Yay me! The shot pulled cleanly and there was no channeling. Some slight bitter notes, maybe a little bit burned, but nothing unpleasant. Good texture. Left behind some sweet notes on my palate.

For my second shot I opted to go with a standard shot, and got 15g out. Just like with the Cremissimo arabica decaf I paradoxically got something more bitter and overextracted. So, this stuff definitely wants a shot on the longer side. It was still decently drinkable though.

This seems like a decent starter espresso for someone who just wants something simple and no-nonsense, and is somewhat forgiving to overextraction. Someone who doesn’t care about the fiddly details of espresso, or extraction ratios or channeling or texture, someone who has never heard of WDT or calibrated tamping or puck prep or any of the debates about 3 bar vs. 9 bar vs. 15 bar.

I used to be like that.

Sometimes I miss those days.

This coffee is fine.

Cremissimo arabica decaf

The fourth ESE pod up for review is the decaf arabica espresso by Cremissimo.

Upon opening, the pod smells like… pretty standard coffee, really. The puck is good and firm, and feels well-compacted. Pods are 7g.

For the first shot I did 24g out (3.4:1, for a longer-than-usual lungo). The resulting coffee was pretty smooth, with a slightly bitter finish and some sweet notes. There wasn’t anything about the flavor which particularly grabbed me; it tasted like a pretty ordinary espresso shot. Which, if we’re being honest, is a good thing. As usual I used the bottomless portafilter, and I didn’t see any channeling take place.

Shot 2 I only took to 14 grams, and paradoxically this was much more bitter than the first one. It tasted like the sort of espresso you’d get at a major coffee chain, or one of those mall kiosks.

And, finally, I did a 125g/4.4oz “shotover,” which took over 2 minutes to pull. It tasted like gas station coffee.

So, overall I would not recommend it. It seems to be good for lungo shots and nothing else, and even then, I’ve had better.

ESE pod review: Bristot decaffeinato

The next ESE pod on my agenda is Bristot decaffeinato.

Opening the packet released a pleasantly fruity aroma.

For my first shot, I opted to use the factory portafilter (which meant not being able to directly measure the shot output), and my resulting shot was around 20g. The shot pulled quite slowly and I was worried that it would be bitter and overextracted, but the flavor was actually rich and well-rounded, and a bit nutty and sweet. Really nice crema on it as well.

To get a better comparison against the other pods so far, I pulled a second shot using the bottomless portafilter, and measured it to a 20.5g extraction, for a ratio of just under 3:1. From this I saw a little bit of channeling, a little more than the Illy pod, way less than the Arabica Express. This time the shot tasted just a little bit more bitter.

I think the main practicality problem with ESE pods is that they’re all 7-8g, so if you want a standard 2:1 ratio you’re getting only a tiny amount of espresso out. This is especially troublesome when drinking decaf, which is all about the flavor, and regardless it’s much more satisfying to have a larger shot, but even a 3:1 lungo is ridiculously small. Maybe this is a mismatch between my American sensibilities and what Italians want out of their coffee.

Or maybe I should be a bit more daring and try brewing at a higher ratio to see what comes out.

So that’s what I did:

Espresso cup sitting on a scale showing a weight of 35.6g

I was pretty worried about how this might taste. The shot looked pretty darn watery towards the end, and the shot continued to pull quite slowly.

I don’t know if it’s just that my taste buds are no good because this was my third shot tasted in a row, but… it’s fine. Tastes almost just like the first two. The texture is a little thinner, there’s a little bit more bitterness, and a bit less sweetness, but… it’s fine.

Maybe this stuff is more forgiving than I thought.

Maybe it’s just coffee and I shouldn’t get so worked up about it.

ESE pod reviews: Illy decaf, Arabica Express

Recently I’ve been infatuated with espresso-type brewing, and have been on a quixotic quest to get the perfect decaf shot. In doing so, I bought a bottomless portafilter for my Gaggia Classic Pro, which very quickly revealed that the biggest problem in my brewing is that my Baratza Encore simply isn’t up to the task, even with the modifications I made to it; all of my shots were channeling and making a mess, regardless of grind size or tamp pressure. The only fix was to grind ultra-fine and tamp ultra-hard, and this led to an overly-slow, over-extracted shot.

As part of my process that led to this decision, I bought some ESE pods in order to have a baseline brewing experience. While ESE pods aren’t ideal for my taste in espresso (I prefer longer shots from a large dose, on the order of 20 in, 40 out) and also don’t satisfy my whole “espresso is an experiment in tweaking and fussiness” impulses, the experience was good enough that I decided to see if ESE Pods on their own were worthwhile.

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A decaf coffee rant

Why do so many roasters seem to think that decaf coffee isn’t worth doing a good job on? The whole reason people drink decaf is because they like the flavor of coffee, but don’t want (or can’t have) the caffeine. So you’d think that there’d be a lot more care taken on making decaf that tastes good!

Of all the roasters in Seattle I’ve only seen two that give a crap about making decaf at all good: Vivace and Zoka. And even then, both of them provide a wide variety of caffeinated roasts, and only a handful of decaf roasts. Portland’s Stumptown used to be a good choice, but their decaf quality has gone way downhill ever since Peet’s bought them out.

I suppose I should give Vita another try now that they’re under new ownership, but I’m not terribly optimistic about that.

But anyway. There’s this weird notion that to truly appreciate espresso you need to also be Very Into Caffeine. Seems like a bunch of shitty machismo to me.

Bodum Bistro milk frother

I’ve been wanting to make coffee drinks with milk. Back when I had a microwave, this was pretty easy; I’d just put a beaker of milk in, heat it for 30 seconds, and then froth it up with my cheap milk frother. But I got rid of my microwave years ago in favor of using a toaster oven instead (which has been far more useful to me), and the alternative is to heat it up in a saucepan first, but that’s annoying and means another pot to clean.

I also looked at many of James Hoffmann’s suggested alternatives and they were all either extremely expensive or even fussier than the methods I’d rejected.

So, the other day, after much deliberation I picked up a Bodum Bistro milk frother at Target. I was originally intending to get the higher-end barista version since it seemed like it would be easier to clean and was a little more flexible (since it supports making cold foam as well as having a purpose-made hot cocoa mode), but it turns out that’s only sold online and I didn’t really want to wait.

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Cold brew coffee

Ingredients:

  • 75 grams coarsely ground coffee
  • 500mL cold water

Combine the above in a large enough jar or pitcher. Allow to steep for 12-24 hours, then strain.

I use a Hario mizudashi pitcher (affiliate link) to make the process a lot easier.

This is pretty great on its own, but with my most recent batch (using the same overly-caramelly dark roast as in the coffee soda experiment), I poured it into a nitro cream whipper (affiliate link) and gave it a nitro boost. The resulting coffee was a bit foamy (I probably shook it too much and brought in too much nitrous) but it tasted way creamier and sweeter, without any need for cream or sugar. And, this has the benefit of being decaf; as far as I know none of the local or chain coffee shops offer decaf cold-brew, and certainly not nitro decaf.

Just a word of warning: decaf coffee still has some caffeine in it, and the cold-brew process is extremely efficient at extracting every last little bit. If you’re particularly caffeine-sensitive you’ll still want to limit your consumption of this.

Coffee soda

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During the COVID-19 lockdown, my favorite local roaster had temporarily closed their retail shops, and being unwilling to spend $8 to get a bag of coffee shipped literally across the street, I decided to try to find other local roasters who made decaf that I could buy at the grocery store, with the hopes of finding something espresso-suitable. I failed.

Thankfully, Vivace reopened this week so I am now well-stocked on good coffee. But I still have a bunch of other coffee hanging around, so I decided, why not try making other things with it?

The first experiment: making cold-brew coffee soda.

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Improving my tamper

I’ve been very much enjoying the Flair, and have gotten very used to pulling shots with it. Since the making of the video I’ve streamlined my morning routine, and also started using a cork trivet as a tamping pad, which is easier on my countertops and the portafilter.

The big downside to the cheapest Flair model is it doesn’t really come with a tamper though, it just comes with a dosing cup that sort of doubles as one. But it’s not very good.

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Brewing with Flair

Today I got a Flair manual espresso maker, and I found that the manual that came with it was a little hard to follow, and the official “how to use Flair” videos were all about the higher-end models and also not that great to follow, and I couldn’t find any useful videos from reviewers on how to actually use the darn thing.

So after I played with it a bunch I figured out how to use it and drew a few shots (which all came out excellent! Espresso Vivace knows how to roast.). So I decided I’d share how I do it, which might be helpful for someone else.

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