My current espresso technique

I’m still learning how to do good espresso, and my current technique seems to generate better, more repeatable results than before.

  1. Let your beans outgas before grinding them

    Inspired, as usual, by a James Hoffmann video, I’ve started doing this much more regularly after noticing that super-fresh-roasted beans keep on resulting in horrible channeling. So now when I get a new bag of beans I put it into my countertop storage and let it sit there while I finish off the previous bag.

    Relatedly, rather than keeping my current beans in an airtight container, I’m actually using the hopper on my grinder instead of single-dosing stuff.

  2. Target 15g of ground espresso

    I’ve settled on a 15-gram dose. Since I’m now using the hopper instead of single-dosing, I’m continuously adjusting my grind timer; I first tare my scale with the dosing cup, then put the dosing cup under the grinder, run it for my set time, then weigh the ground beans and then adjust the timer based on targeting 15 grams (for example, if my grind time is set to 4.5 seconds and I get 13 grams ground, I adjust the timer to \(4.5s \times 15g/13g = 5.19s\)), and then also grind a bit more until I get to 15 grams. If my initial grind was too much I just go ahead and use a larger dose.

  3. Sideways-tap level, then WDT, then sideways-tap again

    I’m no longer using the spinny-spinny leveler, unless I’m having a really difficult time getting the puck level before tamping. I am using a WDT for declumping. I’m still using the crappy WDT but I will someday get around to printing one of the acupuncture-needle ones that everyone’s in love with now.

  4. Calibrated tamper, but go extra

    Instead of trying to get a precise pressure-based tamp, I’m using the calibrated tamper by Decent to indicate the minimum force to pack it down by. Apparently it’s easy to undertamp a puck but pretty much impossible to overtamp, and the depth-based tamping I was doing before was way too inconsistent, especially when using lighter roasts (which tend to grind denser).

    (If you don’t want to pay the premium for the Decent tamper, this one on Amazon looks pretty okay.)

  5. Extract based on time, not ratio

    This is a thing that’s made a huge difference to the quality of my output. Instead of targeting a 1:2 in:out ratio and adjusting the grind to get it closer to 25 seconds, I brew for 25 seconds and then adjust the grind to get it closer to a 1:2 ratio. Extraction time is the primary driver of flavor profile, and a 25-second extraction seems to get pretty close to the peak. So if my grind is too fine I might get a 1:1 ristretto, or if it’s too coarse I might get a 1:3 lungo, but either way I’ll end up with some pretty good-tasting espresso (although a lungo will tend to be a bit more bitter than I like).

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Hopefully the last time I beg for coffee grinding footage

Remember that silly project of mine? I’m still inching ever closer to being done.

I have space for two more random grinders in the video for The Grind, and I could still use a lot more Comandante C40 footage, which I am really surprised has been so hard to get more of because that’s a very popular grinder.

Historically, I’ve gotten a lot of people promising footage which never appeared. Early on in the project I got plenty, quickly, which is how I was able to produce the vast majority of the videos on the same day as the song, or soon after. But these last two tracks have taken so very long to fill out.

So I mean, if you’re interested, now is the time to do it, and don’t let the belief that it’s already covered or that you’ll be beaten to it stop you from recording things. And if I do somehow end up getting more than I need, I’ll still find a use for whatever comes in!

Anyway. I was really hoping to have this done by the end of December; heck, I was hoping to have it done by the end of November. But, y'know. Life happens, and especially right now a lot of folks are traveling for the holidays. So I’ll take what I can get.

I just really want to have this silly hour-plus-long music video finished soon. It’s the most ambitious video project I’ve ever done and I really like how it’s turned out, and I just have these fairly small sections where it’s just a black screen, waiting for some coffee to be ground.

Also I don’t remember where I’ve mentioned it, but everyone who contributes footage gets a download code for the album and a credits screen on the full video.

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Still seeking grinder footage!

So hey my lo-fi beats to grind coffee to project is still going, but I’m very short on usable grinder footage to move forward. One of the big reasons why I haven’t ended up doing a song every day this year is because I wasn’t sure if I’d even be able to make videos for all of them, and not having a source of inspiration for specific grinders hasn’t been helpful for my forward velocity either. (Of course, being displaced from my home didn’t help any either.)

Any grinder footage that people can offer would be incredibly helpful.

There’s also a few specific grinders I’d particularly like footage of:

  • Comandante C40 (I got some footage for it but my video idea would benefit from having as many people using one as possible)
  • Fellow Ode (I’d especially like some footage that involves pressing the button and spinning the adjustment dial in addition to the rest of the filling/grinding/brewing process) Done, thanks Emma!
  • Turin DF64

but any and all grinders are welcome; if I get enough footage for a specific one I’ll try to give it its own video, or otherwise it can go into the final “The Grind” track where I cover everything miscellaneous and sundry.

This includes blade/mill grinders, too! And whatever weird random grinders you have hanging around. I just want a nice wide variety.

Thanks!

Attention all coffee friends!

Do you have a coffee grinder? One which could actually be identified by name? Do you have the ability to record video? Want to be featured in an upcoming Sockpuppet video?

For this year’s Novembeat album I’m doing songs inspired by different coffee grinders and their respective techniques, and as part of this I’m also making silly videos of each grinder. But I only have a handful of grinders myself, and good process-forward footage is difficult to come by. So that’s where you possibly come in.

Updates: I’ve been making edits to this post as various questions come in. I should really be tracking them specifically.

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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.

Studio and cat updates

Studio

My basement studio setup is coming along slowly but surely. I ended up buying a used ADAT preamp to expand my existing audio interface (rather than buying a new interface/patchbay/etc.) and it mostly works great, although I’m going to see if I can hack an S/PDIF decoder into a word clock source for it so that the 18i8 can be master (which makes a couple of things easier to deal with).

For now I’m using my old MacBook as the recording computer. It only has a 500GB drive, though, and I couldn’t find the power adapter for my external HDD enclosure, so I decided to try just running Native Instruments off of my NAS over gigabit Ethernet. Nearly every install failed with a nonsensical “malformed XML document” error, which turns out to be a known issue with attempting to install to a NAS. Oh well. Hopefully that PSU turns up soon. I’m sure it’s in the bottom of whichever box I end up unpacking last.

(The PSU isn’t anything particularly exotic in principle, just a 12V 2A center-positive wallwart, but for some reason all the 12V center-positive wallwarts I can find can’t accommodate its extra-thick center pin.)

But anyway, today I finally got to the point where I could hook up my piano, and so I played piano for the first time since April, which felt nice. I can’t believe I let it be this long. I guess I really thought the backyard shed studio would go a lot more quickly!

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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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