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.
Regardless of what brewing method you’re using, there’s some things you’re going to need for a good result.
Anything that’s airtight is fine. Heck, the bag that it comes in is probably fine. I typically keep my frequently-used beans on the counter, my rarely-used open beans in the fridge, and my unopened beans in the freezer.
There is, of course, a deep rabbit hole you can go down. As long as you’re using your beans quickly it’s probably not worth caring about too much.
Both grinding and brewing need a fast, precise scale. I have tried so many scales at this point, and most of them are awful. However, I have found one scale that’s quite good and also relatively cheap: the Kyerlish digital coffee scale. It costs a bit more than the standard cheap scale but I find that the higher price is very well worth it. It’s both incredibly precise (the 0.1g precision is legitimate) and fast (it converges on the accurate weight in well under a second). It’s also chargeable via USB-C so you don’t have to worry about changing batteries, and the charging process is pretty quick and shows a clear indicator of both progress and completion.
It also has some fancy timing modes intended for pourover brewing, although I haven’t found them to be all that useful. I usually keep it in PR2 (fully manual) mode.
The only thing I particularly dislike about it is how relatively short the automatic shutoff is. It would also be nice if the touch buttons weren’t quite so sensitive; it’s far too easy to accidentally tare the scale while trying to start or stop the timer, for example.
The grinder I use is the Baratza Sette 270. It’s quite good for espresso, and pretty okay for pourover and Aeropress. For espresso in particular it offers a really good range and precision of grind settings, and the built-in portaholder works nicely with my portafilter of choice.
If you don’t care about the precise adjustment and want to save a lot of money, the Sette 30 is apparently a good choice, although I haven’t tried it myself. According to Kyle Rowsell the portaholder isn’t as nice, and it’s missing the ultra-fine grind adjustment, which I would not be comfortable without. If you only care about pourover coffee, this might be a better choice overall, or you could go even lower-end and get the Baratza Encore which is even cheaper and ostensibly much better for pourover for reasons I don’t understand.
If you want more convenience for your dose and don’t mind spending $200 more, the Baratza Sette 270Wi has a built-in scale for measuring the dose. However, I don’t personally think this is worth it, as my grinding technique makes the built-in scale completely unnecessary.
On that note, my grinding technique is to place the hopper lid concave-side-up onto my scale, taring the scale, and then loading it up with my single-cup dose of beans. Then I give it a spritz or two of water (using one of these cute little spray bottles) to cut down on static electricity, dump it into the hopper and replace the cover, place either the dosing cup (for pourover) or portafilter (for espresso) into the receiving end, and then run the grinder for 15 seconds. Dose precision isn’t necessary, because you can’t grind more coffee than what’s in the grinder to begin with.
I also modded it with the 9-bar OPV spring, which so far I haven’t found to be necessary, although many fans of the Gaggia swear by the mod. Someday I should actually measure the spring’s diameter, length, and force, and put the specs online, so that people can go to a hardware store and pay 50 cents for one instead of paying nearly $20 for a spring like I did.
I also 3D printed a replacement drip tray and a tube extender, and even with the tube extender needed a longer drain tube which I made by modifying a reusable drinking straw which happened to be the correct diameter. I had printed the tray twice, once in PETG and once in resin. The PETG one held up fine. The resin one… didn’t. All of these mods are entirely optional, in any case; they just make it easier to fit a scale under the espresso cup, which is helpful for dosing.
The main downsides to the Gaggia are that it doesn’t have a precise temperature controller, and it doesn’t do pre-infusion. It also wasn’t my first choice of machine; I was actually intending to buy a Breville Bambino Plus but at the time they were completely out-of-stock at every retailer I tried to order it at, and my next choice was the Solis Barista Perfetta but it was impossible to place an order which didn’t keep on getting canceled for bizarre reasons. Both of those seem like fine machines, though, and they get very good reviews.
I bought a bottomless portafilter off AliExpress (specifically in the A2 style). Bottomless makes it easier to diagnose issues with espresso shots, and also makes it easier to fit an espresso cup and scale underneath when using the stock drip tray.
There are similar portafilters available on Amazon, but I didn’t like any of the materials or styles available there.
If you get a portafilter with a wooden handle, I highly recommend sealing the wood with mineral oil to improve the water resistance and finish.
Also, of course, make sure you get the right portafilter for your machine; these ones are specific to the Gaggia.
I bought a four-basket set from Decent, which included 15, 18, 20, and 22 gram dose sizes. I mostly use the 20 gram basket. This is just a matter of preference. These baskets are quite nice. I also hear good things about the IMS Baristapro baskets, which cost a little more but the total cost might be lower depending on shipping options.
I also use the factory-provided 14 gram basket specifically with ESE pods; see my ESE pod reviews for my thoughts on those.
And, again, if you go with a different machine than mine, make sure you get the right size basket; 58mm is a pretty standard diameter but Breville, for example, uses a smaller 54mm size on most of their consumer models. Decent only comes in 58mm but there are many options for other-sized brewers.
I love this solid wood tamping station that I got off AliExpress. I specifically got the two-hole 58mm version. There are identical ones available on Amazon. And as usual, if you go with a different-size portafilter, yadda yadda.
Setting this up is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t come with instructions, but basically you screw the locking nut onto the adjustment screw until it rests against the screw head, then adjust the height of the screw until the portafilter rests level on top of it, then adjust the locking nut until it holds the screw in place.
Some folks prefer a silicone tamping mat, but I find that doesn’t work so well with a bottomless portafilter, or with rounded kitchen counters like mine.
Hoo boy, this was the thing that almost broke me. Most of my angst when it came to technique and shot quality and basic operation came down to this. My recent blog rant about coffee nerds was, ultimately, primarily about this one aspect of espresso puck prep.
The general technique, for those who are video-averse:
- Put a basket-appropriate dose into your portafilter
- Adjust the distributor depth to as shallow as it will go, and level off the top of the puck
- (Optional) Slowly increase the distributor end’s depth by a half-turn at a time and re-level the puck until the top is flat
- Place the portafilter into the espresso machine, and tighten it down to the full brewing position
- Remove it and put it in your tamping station; you should see the texture of the shower screen on the top of the puck (if not, you need to add more coffee and try again)
- Adjust the tamper depth a turn at a time until it just barely makes contact with the top of the puck
- Progressively adjust it a half-turn at a time until the shower-screen texture goes away
- Put the portafilter back into the machine and take it out; if the shower-screen texture reappears, keep adjusting the tamper a quarter-turn at a time until it goes away for good
This tamping pressure adjustment has been the single most helpful thing in getting my tamp perfect. The palm tamper is guaranteed to make a level, consistent tamp. Pressure doesn’t really matter and calibrated tampers don’t really help all that much anyway.
If you really care about puck pressure you could use a calibrated tamper after doing a depth-based tamp but I haven’t found that it makes any appreciable difference.
You should have a knock box. There are literally dozens of vendors on AliExpress selling the same basic design (a small plastic bin with a rubber rod). It works great. There are also literally dozens of vendors selling them on Amazon. They’re all just drop-shipping from AliExpress.
The Gaggia doesn’t come with a pitcher, but I don’t use the steam wand on my espresso machine anyway. I actually use the Bodum bistro automatic milk frother. It’s great for cappuccino. It’s terrible for latte art, but
I don’t give a crap about latte art that isn’t a priority for me. I’m making coffee for me to drink, not for Instagram.
I am a fan of these glass espresso cups. I also have a large collection of other cups that I’ve accumulated over the years, including a charming Ikea set, some handmade pottery from Italy, a ceramic shot glass made by my grandmother, and random conference swag.
Finally, how to brew espresso that’s Good Enough for me!
- Put the portafilter into the espresso machine, and turn it on. Let it heat up for 4-5 minutes.
- Weigh out and spray the beans and load them into the hopper
- If using the portaholder, put the nice hot portafilter into that; otherwise put in the dosing cup. Either way, grind the beans and get them into the portafilter. (If you’re transferring from the dosing cup you might also want a dosing funnel.)
- Knock the side of the portafilter a few times to get it vaguely level-ish
- Put the portafilter into the tamping station
- Put the tamper-distributor with the spinny-spinny distributor side down onto the portafilter, and then made with the spinny-spinny
- Flip it over and press down until the tamper is flush against the portafilter. Maybe do a spinny-spinny with it too. No particular reason for that, it’s just fun.
- Portafilter goes into the machine, scale goes under it, cup goes in between the two
- Tare the scale, and then start the timer simultaneously with turning the brewer on
- Just before the scale shows your preferred output weight (typically 2x the amount of ground coffee you put in, but typical ranges go from 1x to 3x), turn off the brewer
- Stop the timer when the coffee stops dripping
Hopefully the timer will show around 25-35 seconds. Too low indicates you probably have your coffee too coarse, or not enough. Too high indicates you probably have your coffee too fine, or too much of it. If you’re getting random sprays of coffee coming out then you’re experiencing channeling; to fix that, post to r/espresso and be told how everything you’re doing is 100% wrong.
But really what’s important is the flavor. So, stir the espresso with a tiny spoon and give it a taste. If it’s too sour, grind finder (and target a longer brew time). If it’s too bitter, grind coarser (and target a shorter brew time).
Take notes about your grind settings, level/tamp technique, brew time, and flavor so that you can figure out how to make a repeatably good shot of espresso.
You can also try different leveling techniques. There are a few demonstrated in this video. I don’t agree with their conclusions, especially since they focus only on the measured TDS of the coffee and never even taste it or provide tasting notes. But there are several leveling techniques demonstrated there, in any case, and they’re worth a try.
I’ve had the most luck with vertical collapse and/or Stockfleth, followed by the spinny-spinny distributor. If the puck isn’t level after using the distributor, I’ll do a shallow WDT to get the surface closer to level before doing the distributor again. This is probably unnecessary but it works for me.
Anyway, here’s something to keep in mind in general when it comes to diagnosing and fixing coffee issues:
Okay, so all of the above is the hyper-fiddly expensive stuff for brewing espresso. What if you want pourover coffee?
- Start boiling your water
- Grind 15-20 grams of coffee to a medium grind
- Put a filter in the brewer and the ground coffee in the filter, and everything atop the scale, which should be tared
- When the water comes to a boil, pour 50 grams or so onto the coffee and let it “bloom.” Optionally swirl or stir it to get all of the grounds soaked. This should take 30 seconds or so.
- When the coffee stops bubbling, pour enough water into the brewer until you have 300 grams of water
- Let it drip through. Maybe run the timer to see how long it takes.
If the coffee brews too quickly and is weak and flavorless, grind it finer. If it brews too slowly and is bitter, grind it coarser. Typically I find that the brew should take 2-3 minutes.
I also enjoy Aeropress coffee, for something between pourover and espresso. The best choice for an Aeropress-style brewer is the original. I also highly recommend getting a Fellow Prismo, which makes the process significantly less fussy (in particular, it removes the need to brew “inverted” since it locks the coffee in rather than having it drip out while it brews).
Note that it is not recommended to use an Aeropress along with the Stagg tasting glasses.
- Start boiling your water
- Grind 15-20 grams of coffee to a medium-fine grind
- Put the metal filter into the Prismo, optionally a paper filter on top of the metal filter, and attach the Prismo to the Aeropress body
- Put the coffee into the Aeropress body, and all this onto the scale. Tare the scale.
- Pour 200 grams of water into the Aeropress and give it a stir. Wait 2 minutes.
- Put the Aeropress on top of your glass, attach the plunger, push the plunger down until you’re satisfied with the coffee which comes out. Some folks insist that “to the hiss” is too far. Personally I think it’s fine to push it down all the way. Maybe I have bad taste.
- Optionally, dilute the coffee with up to another 100 grams of water
This is just what works for me. The random Aeropress recipe generator might give you some more things to try. Experiment. (But if you’re using a Prismo there’s no reason to brew inverted so you can ignore that instruction.)
So, let’s say you want to replicate all of the essential parts of my station Right Now. How much does this cost all-in? Here’s an overly-confusing table based on which parts of the brewing experience you want:
|Pourover brewer3 + filters||$10||$10|
Coffee is an expensive hobby and I kind of wish I hadn’t ever gone down this rabbit hole.
Assuming Sette 270 for espresso, and Sette 30 or Encore for pourover. ↩
Assuming espresso cups for espresso, Stagg + Carter for pourover, and Carter for Aeropress. Obviously YMMV based on how fancy you want to get here. I mean, you probably already have coffee cups. ↩