"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2006 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Starting the New Year - 1/1/2006
As those of you who take the time to endure my posts on alt.coffee have recently learned, I just bought a used motorhome. One of the included "optional accessories" was a Black and Decker, under-counter drip machine. For the space it took up and considering its age, it was one of the first things I removed. Being that it is just the two of us I would probably never make a full pot anyway, and drip is not my brewing method of choice. On alt.coffee I humorously mentioned that I was looking for a mobile coffee making method. Many had already come to mind, with press pot, pour over, and moka pot being on top of the list. I still have some work to do before we head out on the road anyway, so there was no rush.
We dropped into a 'local' thrift store on the 31st of December, 2005. It's one of my favorite places because of the huge stock and very low prices. I have picked up about eight Pendelton shirts for about $3 each (the older ones that last!), a couple of Poppery I popcorn poppers, a Zojirushi bread machine for about $10 and more there. Val saw a Delonghi convection oven for $35 and I saw a Krups espresso machine for $16. We decided that since New Years Day is half-off on everything there we would go back the next day (I had some other shopping to do anyway).
Well, as things sometimes go, the oven was already gone when we arrived, but I lucked out as the Krups was still there. I had examined it and although I was totally unfamiliar with that model (or any other model of Krups espresso machines for that matter) I checked it out. It said "Heats" on the price tag, and the pump labored as a pump should when I plugged it into the test outlet at the store, so I figured that, worst case, I would have a spare pump. It has both the single and double basket included, and the portafilter was there as well! And for $8, could you turn it down?
The first thing I did after arriving at home was to pull out the removable water tank and fill it with tap water to test it. Sure enough, it heated up very quickly and so I assumed that it was a thermoblock heater. The brr... brr.... brr... of the pump when in steam mode also was another clue. I switched it to brew and water gladly poured through the empty portafilter.
Starting the New Year with a "New" espresso machine"
A bit of label searching and Internet detective work revealed that this is a Krups 863 which was made in Switzerland (Solis?). I only found one place listing them for sale new, and that was a shop in Canada that listed them for $400CDN ($344 US)! I also found one fellow on eBay looking for one to replace one that he destroyed that belonged to a friend. How about that! I have a buyer for it and it hasn't even made coffee yet!
Next step was to pull the shower screen and give all the parts a thorough cleaning. There was some black, dry dust in the basket and under the shower screen that resembled the graphite powder found in hand-crank pencil sharpeners! I mixed a batch of citric acid and started the descaling and mixed up some espresso machine cleaner for the rest. A good rinsing, a flush of the machine to get the descaler out, and wipe-down of the exterior with the remaining espresso machine cleaner, and so there was only one thing left.
I had fairly well figured out how to operate it, and so I ground some coffee, leaving Rocky set at the point I used for Silvia this morning. I guessed at the amount of beans- using just a bit more than one scoop (usually two full scoops for the La Marzocco double basket). The Krups has a built in tamper- a cylindrical protrusion up on the over-hang, next to the brewhead. This tamper, much like Silvia's original tamper, is undersized a bit. In contrast, much like the high-tech calibrated tampers, this one too has a calibration system. If you lift the portafilter onto the tamper with more effort than the designers intended, the machine lifts off the counter top! You can control the tamping force within the designers' intended range by adding or removing water from the removable water tank to change the machine's total mass.
Speaking of its water tank, there is a clue that the folks at Rancilio could have taken from the Krups folks. On the front of the machine there is a slot in the plastic body that exposes the side of the water tank., It is very easy to see when the tank is getting low. A slot in the stainless on the Side of Silvia would have been a really nice touch. The tank has a mechanical valve at the bottom that allows the tank to be lifted out of the machine without hassling with hoses, and it is easily carried to the sink for filling using its built in handle. Back to the matter at hand-
In the few minutes I had played with the machine during and after the cleaning session I noticed that it got hot when idling, so I quickly learned to flush out a bit of water to cool it off before loading the portafilter- Shades of E61. As soon as the steam ceased and water came from the brewhead I locked the portafilter and hit the brew switch... errr, turned the control knob to the brew selection. The pump ran, then labored, then a thick, syrupy, dark brown liquid issued forth! "Why, Heavens to Betsy! Would you look at that! it appears to be espresso" he exclaimed with obvious delight on this dark and stormy night. OK. That's not what I said, but it was a dark and stormy night.
I stopped the brew cycle at aorund 1.75 ounces just as the stream was showing signs of becoming lighter and losing viscosity. I handed the cup to my wife who had requested it, and she said that it was too hot! Well, I knew it wasn't becasue one of the things that worried me about this machine was that it seemed to be brewing at around 185 to 190- a bit cool for decent espresso. I took the cup from her and bravely sipped.. Hey.. !? I sipped again. It really did taste as good as it smelled. She then requested some steamed milk to add, so I tested the steaming ability. Pretty darn good, over all. The frothing attachment was tested (just for a laugh) and I must say there is nothing funny about it. I immediately turned off the steam and removed it. With the unadulterated wand it worked just fine.
So I have found a new respect for the more basic of machines. There is no way that a machine like this can replace something like Silvia- the thermoblock heating system, especially at this level, is not capable of any sort of consistent temperature control, or at least to say, it is not very controllable. The small filter baskets don't hold enough coffee, and all that plastic is a clicking time bomb towards appliance mortality- at least in this house. And let's just say that aluminum in the brewing path is not my material of choice when it comes to espresso machines. But still, if this test is any indication at all, this would be an excellent starter machine. Given some technique and coupled with a decent grinder, I was able to make a very drinkable cup of espresso. Unfortunately this model is no longer made, but it did earn some respect from me for its decent performance.
Tell my girl not to worry. Silvia, you are not going on eBay to be replaced with my 'new' Krups 863. But the Krups is not going there either. What began as a possible fun toy to eventually be sold on eBay has turned into a useful machine that will find a place in the motorhome. For an espresso machine it is near perfect for such use. It is compact, lightweight, and heats up very quickly saving electricity (and wear and tear on the generator). It also can quickly supply hot water for other needs as well, thus saving propane. It might even make its way into the house when I need to make multiple steamed drinks for guests.
Not a bad way to begin the new Year!