Espresso is an approach to extracting flavor from coffee beans. The basic principles are to extract only the best part, using water which is not quite boiling and under a lot of pressure. The "best part" and "not quite boiling" bits are critical to making good coffee by any means, while "a lot of pressure" is a neat trick to manage at the same time. Machines that can do this all at once were only invented in this century. Most low-end home espresso machines settle for "some" pressure, and cheat on the "not quite boiling" part as well. The result is strong but bitter, acidic coffee, nothing like a true espresso.
There are two categories of home machines that pull this off, using respectively a hand-operated lever or a serious electric pump. A lever machine is like a guitar, only better: You will sound pretty good on your first day of practice, and the entry level instrument sounds great in the hands of a musician. A pump machine is like a boom box: You are in the audience, and you get what you paid for.
The same choice exists in woodworking, where the camps
divide between hand tools and power tools. Hand tools in awkward hands like mine
are trickier, slower, and open doors of perception. The web and its paper
precursors have plenty of advice to offer on choosing and operating a pump
espresso machine. However, the vast majority of my espresso friends have chosen a
particular lever machine to make their coffee. These notes are my report on what
we think we know.
Whether to pull a lever or press a button is a subject of great debate. There are so many variables involving "operator feel" to making an espresso, that (the lever view) to press a button for the critical step is like hitching the last quarter mile up Mount Washington after climbing all morning, -vs- (the pump view) there are enough control variables to give up a few degrees of freedom, and a good pump can do a steadier job of extraction than a lever. Everyone agrees that a Pavoni has a great deal of personality; some just feel that it has too much.
One cannot learn to make good espresso by absorbing facts. The process is a way of seeing, a piece of bootstrap computer code checking all the senses, as crucial to waking up as the caffeinated sensory reward at the end. A Pavoni, with the aura of a 1930's alien signaling device, is the most involving tool one can choose for communicating with the coffee muses.
(If you are always signaling aliens one cup at a time, you can accommodate bigger mugs by unscrewing the double spigot attachment from the basket holder.)
The single best reference on making an espresso or a cappuccino is the book "Espresso From Bean to Cup" by Nick Jurich, 1991, Missing Link Press, Seattle, $11.95, ISBN 1-880289-00-8. Carried by Thanksgiving Coffee. Legendary for its troubleshooting guide. While the advice leans toward pump users, the author closes his equipment section with his "sentimental favorite," the Pavoni Europiccola: "Not a machine I can recommend for everyone, this is a machine for the incurable romantic."
The nominal capacity of the Europiccola is 8 espressos. Realistically, it yields four cappuccinos without refilling. If you purge with hot water before each cup (recommended; prewarming the empty filter holder and cleaning out the system leads to better "crema"), then four servings gets out of reach. In this scenario, or for a party, you will have to refill a Europiccola. The good news is that with care, this isn't such a big deal.
Only once in your life will you skip the steps of first releasing all pressure by opening the frothing valve and lifting the lever arm (and hopefully you will escape injury). It takes the concentration of a professional chef to make decent espresso enough times in a row for a party, anyway; the short break while the Europiccola reheats is a good moment for wrestling with one's karma. Indeed, a quick glance in the Concise OED reveals
karma the sum of a person's actions in previous states of espresso, viewed as deciding his or her fate in future espressos.Mathematicians try to solve recurrence relations like this in closed form.
Zabar's sells the Pavoni Europiccola so cheap (including mail order) that Pavoni sticks a different name on just for them, the Carina. This is a black enamel metal base with a plastic underside, and in all other respects is identical with the Pavoni Europiccola. It comes in the same box, with the same useless video. The prices (starting at $350 or so for a chrome Europiccola) are typically 50% higher elsewhere.
How to Use a La Pavoni by Daniel Ho is a highly recommended account of how to use a Pavoni, complete with an ongoing discussion forum.
Caveats: Yes, the tiny plastic crossbar where the coffee comes out looks like it will break, and it will. You won't miss it at all. Yes, the wire brush and instruction insert for cleaning looks like an afterthought. My guess is that the Pavoni engineers were truly befuddled at first by reports of complaints from the U.S. that didn't match their Italian marketing experiences, till some friendly soul took them aside and explained, "You wouldn't believe what oily drek passes for espresso beans in the States! Throw in a cleaning brush!" I recommend this grinder specifically for Italian-style espresso beans such as sold by Torrefazione Italia. If you disagree with my take on American roasting habits, this grinder will probably still work for you, but you're on your own.
This mill grinds more uniformly than any previous mill in my experience, and one must adapt one's brewing technique accordingly: One gets more flow through finer grounds than with a mill that generates irregularly sized particles. (Mathematicians refer to this sort of thing as the sphere-packing problem.) This mill might be the answer to coaxing better performance out of feable low-end pump espresso makers, for with these grounds, one gets great espresso and great crema with less pressure. It grinds at a lower rpm than cheaper mills, and makes a more pleasing noise while doing so. I've had no problems with static electricity charging my grounds.
The grind fineness ajustment is continuous and very precise. However, within hours of purchase I decided to recalibrate the grind range to allow finer grinds (see instructions below). The next day I took the grind range down another stop, and now I am happy. (Others have reported that their grinders came calibrated just fine.) I have yet to experience a stuck lever on my Pavoni Europiccola, no matter how finely I grind or hard I tamp; the wall between "too fine" and "wet clay" comes more gradually with these grounds. I get great coffee with a remarkably light pull on the Pavoni lever, and even better if I grind finely enough to get the firm pull I'm used to. This mill also has the first "doser" I like using, with no internal waste (give it a good slap to dislodge the grounds in transit, after grinding). The doser mechanism doesn't involve a cradle, so it works with any brand of filter holder. In short, this grinder makes brewing espresso twice as easy and fun.
One might reasonably assume that adjusting the limits of the grind range voids the warranty, but the enclosed schematic (as excerpted on the left) makes it a trivial and reversible task. In any case, do not attempt this unless you are taking full responsibility for your actions; I am merely reassuring you that this mod is possible.
Work gently, and do not adjust the limits so finely that the grinder is capable of self-destructing. Take off the beans lid G1, and using a small Phillips-head screwdriver, remove the three screws which attach G2 to the base, keeping track of which screw is which. Note how the fineness control G13-G12-G9 continuously rotates the outer burrs G7. Note also how the two "bookends" G3, G3 hold the grind selection display G4. The left G3 bumps into G9 at the finest setting allowed. Note how each G3 seats in a hole on G7, and how there are other holes at your disposal; each hole is a bit less than 3 units on the display. To allow finer settings, gently pry up each G3 with a small flat screwdriver, and move them both around to the next available hole. Confirm that at the new finest setting, the burrs don't knash and jam. Reassemble.
This mill can grind finer than any mill I have ever seen. This mill can grind fine enough to burn out the motor on a pump espresso machine, and freeze the lever on a Pavoni. The ideal grind looks too coarse at first. It never demands a cleaning, though an occasional going-over with a dry toothbrush keeps the grind uniform. Like any burr grinder it needs to be "primed" with coffee particles part-filling the burrs before the grind settles down. There is no calibration on the grind selection dial; using a Zassenhaus is like trying to play a violin in tune. All of the arguments for using a Pavoni to make coffee by hand, with continual tactile feedback leading to a heightened awareness of the process, apply to using this mill.
I eventually cheated by labeling the dial with a metalic gold marker, drawing an arrow on one side of the handle, and reading off how the arrow lines up with the letters on the dial. You may want to similarly calibrate any unlabeled hand grinder.
This mill is capable of a very uniform grind, and offers a very sensitive continuously variable grind control. However, after a year of constant use, the grind setting seems to float on me. I now prefer the La Pavoni Coffee Grinder, but the Zassenhaus is a great mill if you like the idea of a hand-operated grinder.
The three questions to ask in examining any coffee mill are
There are little plastic tabs within the Braun that keep the user from adjusting the grind to the point where the two grinding wheels knash and burn out the motor. By unscrewing the top from the base, locating the tabs, and filing off the tab on the base, you can go a step or two finer. This sometimes helps in getting the grind right for espresso, depending on your beans. Watch your house guests carefully if you disable this safeguard. Take the unit apart and clean out the accumulated coffee regularly, or the mill will eventually seize up and burn out.
Alternatively, James Kosalos writes:
"You might be interested to know that the Braun burr grinder has a thrust bearing adjustment screw on the bottom of its motor shaft. The screw has a lock nut and is accessible by removing the base of the grinder. I adjust mine by first unscrewing the hopper (selecting a finer grind by one or two clicks) and then tightening the thrust bearing screw a little. Then I try it out by turning on the grinder and very carefully/slowly screwing the hopper towards the finest grind. If the burs meet and gnash slightly the thrust bearing screw is holding the motor shaft too high, and I repeat the performance lowering the shaft a little more each time until the burrs do not touch when the finest grind is selected."
The coffee newsgroups tend to view Braun burr grinders as defining the bottom end of acceptable, but they are a huge step up from blade grinders. Similar models are said to spew grounds in unwanted directions, and some people experience severe static electricity problems. Static is solved by humidity or an all-metal construction; one writer borrows a darkroom piezoelectric static gun to zap away his problem. Static actually serves to sort the particles by size, which can be an advantage. Call me simple; I like the Braun.
In general, be leary of a coffee mill with a "doser" or "dispenser." The coffee's flight path will typically involve an overnight layover in the doser compartment, and Murphy is sure the doser won't be the right size for your espresso machine, anyway.
However, David Ross writes:
"By the way, don't be so quick to dismiss doser-grinders. The doser itself has both positive and negative aspects, but the burrs on the better doser-grinders are conical instead of flat, which in my experience leads to better uniformity of grind. We retired a Bialetti disk grinder (comparable to the Braun) about a year ago in favor of the Rancilio Rocky. The difference between the two at similar coarseness is very obvious under a magnifier, and our espresso's quality has slightly but noticeably improved."
It would be interesting to see the different grinds from various
devices under a microscope. If anyone has access to microscopic
photography facilities, I'd love to collaborate in posting a
You should emulate espresso's extraction temperature, by letting the just-boiled water cool a bit before use. You could also emulate espresso's flavor isolation, by quickly brewing a generous quantity of coffee. However, the French press is best understood as a different beast. In particular, one brews a coarser grind for a longer time, with a less concentrated result. Stay below the mud barrier; the analogue to "stuck lever" syndrome from too fine a grind is "stuck plunger."With careful measurement and timing in a microwave, you can heat your water to the ideal temperature (explore the range 190-200 F) without ever boiling it. Pay attention to the angle you place the measuring cup on a rotating microwave platter, and it will stop handle out.
You won't get any "crema" (the elusive "head" on an espresso, like on a Guinness), and the flavor is different in part because a French press doesn't extract using pressure, so it doesn't dissolve various coffee compounds. (Here, it seems like you're ingesting them in solid form, instead!) Many varieties of coffee bean taste good in a French press; it's particularly good at making a seriously earthy cup of Central American coffee. One does far better with a French press than a cheap espresso maker, until one is able to splurge for a Pavoni or a serious pump machine. I used a French press for ten years; I was the last of my friends to convert to a Pavoni. French presses are a continual chore to clean.
To put these assertions through the harsh light of scientific scrutiny, I A/B tested my Pavoni output against a good stainless steel stovetop espresso maker. With everything else held constant I can't finish a stovetop espresso, but the cappuccinos are actually enjoyable. Milk hides a lot. It's like stereo, you have to know what you're missing to want to spend more. Unfortunately, one visit to Italy and you know.
One can buy stovetop milk steamers, making such cappuccinos and lattes possible. Do
not buy the combination stovetop units, costing as much as separates. They make you wait several
minutes after brewing coffee, before you can steam milk.
Making extract is best informed by experience with a French press. I've never had any luck with cold brewing. Use 1-2 times as much 190-200 F water as freshly roasted coarsely to medium ground coffee by volume, steeping 3 to 5 minutes in a giant measuring cup. Stir at first but let settle, so most grounds stay behind. Pour through cheesecloth, and bottle in glass with tight caps. One could use a fast filter, with some loss of flavor and sediment. Serve from the bottles as if decanting wine, and the remaining sediment will show a stubborn preference for the bottom of the bottle even at cleaning time.
This is a great way to amortize the energy required for home roasting; roast your beans the day before, as they improve with time to degas. Attentive roasting with a powerful air popcorn popper in the garage seems to be a cult favorite, and some have modified the circuitry for higher temps; I'm not sure how. See Drew Ivan's page on Roasting Coffee for a start. Again, home roasting technique is a subject of some controversy. I would never breath a bottle of wine with a hair dryer (though I've considered fish tank gurglers), and air roasted beans taste flat to me, as they do to some other writers.
There is an electric clarity to good strong unfiltered extract drunk cold; a way to truly appreciate your favorite varietals.
I recommend buying half a dozen 8 ounce Ball wide mouthed jelly
jars (with mason bands and gasket lids), filling them at
the time of purchase. (The truly obsessed might consider the 4 ounce jars.)
A pound of beans will fill most or all of them,
epending on the roast. Seal tightly, and label/date the lids using
peel-off labels (two cut up address labels will do the dozen; label
then cut). Don't overfill, and keep the gaskets clean, or you won't
get a good seal. Store them in a cool, dark place, and open one at a
time as needed. This system minimizes the total exposure to oxygen and
I ran an experiment, with three blends each spending the month in jelly jars in a cupboard, the fridge, and the freezer. I let each jar return to room temperature before comparing. They were all lousy substitutes for fresh beans, but the colder storage methods actually held up better. It seems that a single visit protected by a good seal escapes most of the dire consequences of fridge storage, and that the one-time damage of freezing is compensated for by the slowing down of time. But why keep coffee this long? Room temperature storage wins hands down for the first week or two.
Bear in mind that coffee beans release CO2, mostly in the first day or two after roasting. If your beans are too freshly roasted, you might think about holding off on "canning" them. In fact, I've never blown up a jar, although sometimes they ping and let out an aromatic whoosh on opening. I don't worry about this.
Following up on this, I spoke with Ken at the Wine Club retail shop at 953 Harrison St, San Francisco. He had a home Argon tank system put together for under $100 ($18 refills but a tank hold a lot) by Jim at their Argon supplier, Altair Gases and Equipment Inc., San Ramon, CA 94583. The customers in the vicinity all weighed in with opinions that Argon gas was readily available throughout the country. Ken got this system for wine, but as long as it's around the house, he also uses it to store freshly roasted nuts. It turns out that these units release a reliable volume of Argon gas per minute, so one can just blindly use a timer to displace known volumes of air. He made the astute observation that one should first fill the storage containers with Argon gas, and then drop in the coffee beans. (Think of which order would create fewer air pockets if you were instead filling with water.) I would top off afterwards, too, for good measure.
Apparently, the beans undergo a cross-species transformation which aids the imagination; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have been drinking this coffee when he first started daydreaming about palaeontology.
There are now hundreds of web references to Kopi Luwak. Curiously, all accounts date to pretty much the same month early in the explosion of the web. Nevertheless, I recently received email from a credible professional source who's drunk the stuff. Trust every word you read on the web: This stuff does exist, and it's just a very spicy Robusta.