The Four M's of Espresso
Understanding the Factors that Affect the Espresso
Shopping to avoid disappointment.
I have recently been involved in a number of forum threads which have a common, related subject matter, so I thought I would make some attempt at addressing that directly here. The common element is often a wonderment on the part of the original poster on why they currently can't, or how can they, get good espresso from their espresso machine.
Mano (hand - The person making the espresso): The person creating the beverage. In our case, the home barista.
Macchina (machine - the espresso machine): The espresso machine that forces the heated water through the ground coffee.
Miscela (mixture - the bean blend): For this we will lump together the blend, roast and other factors of the beans themselves.
Macinatura (grinding - the ground coffee): Here we consider not just the grind, but how it is produced.
Espresso is complicated. It starts in the coffee growing regions of the world, with a coffee cherry usually containing two little seeds and ends up as a beverage in a cup and then onto your palate. In between there are a near-infinite number of factors that create that taste for which we strive.
The important factors in creating espresso are often divided into the "Four M's" (in Italian) of Espresso:
The new home barista, many times with a beginner's budget, limited knowledge, and no experience, looks for assistance to get started or solve problems. Let's take the "Four M's" in the order shown above and examine the sort of assistance given:
THE BARISTA (Mano)- Making espresso is a life-long journey, particularly when making it as a home barista. At home, an "average" person might make as many drinks in two months as a professional might make in one or two days. It puts a lot more importance on knowing the machine, the beans and the grinder to be able to get sufficient control over all the variables to get good espresso at home. In other words, it won't happen overnight, and maybe not even in a few months. A lot of it may be drinkable, but the great stuff hides and takes time to find. If you want to be in it, you have to be in it for the long haul. Patience, perseverance, consistency, and attention to detail are what it is all about.
The assistance given in the forums normally comes in the form of some basic tips concerning the dose (how much coffee is used per shot), the distribution (how the ground coffee is "arranged" in the filter basket), discussing how to cure bitter and sour tastes, and such.
THE MACHINE (Macchina)- Espresso machines come in price ranges from so inexpensive it's too good to be true, all the way to ridiculous and beyond (it's all relative). You can find little machines which rate as "toys" (at least by the more knowledgeable), selling for $35 to $175 or so. For the most part, these are "espresso machines" in name only, and are generally a good way to get rid what otherwise would have been undrinkable coffee anyway.
The next big step into the home machines, often referred to as "entry level," sell from about $200 all the way up to about $800 or so. Most of these (but not all) are capable of creating very good espresso in the right hands when the next two categories are competently filled. Most machines in the $300 to $800 range will serve the needs of most home baristas. There is a lot of overlap here so stating a specific price range is difficult. If shipping in this range, look for a machine which has a true boiler and not a thermoblock heater will be a good way to narrow your choices.
After that, the sky's the limit, starting at about $900 with some machines selling for over $2000. Some WAY over $2000! These are usually modeled after deigns of commercial machines, some are actually used commercially, and some are small-run, handmade machines. And, yes, we are still talking about machines which are used in homes. In the $900 to $1500 range these machines have the capability to make great espresso. Above that price the machines get easier to use and may offer electronic controls. For most of these machines you get the ability to extract espresso at the same time that you are steaming milk. This is an excellent feature if you are entertaining a group, or any time you are making multiple beverages in one session.
While there is assistance to be given in this area, it is usually minimal for the new user. Most of the entry-level home machines mentioned above have one or maybe two adjustments, if that, which may make a difference in the espresso produced. The best advice is often, "Let the machine warm up for at least 30 minutes." It's hard to go much beyond that with a new user because there are so many other variables to deal with at the beginning stage that making adjustments here will as likely make matters worse as better. When discussing the very low-end machines, the advice often begins, "Is it to late to return it and get your money back?" Most purchasers of the top-end machines are already experienced so they know how to diagnose and solve problems.
Speaking of diagnosing and solving problems when making espresso, be sure to read my "How to:" "12 - EASY GUIDE TO BETTER ESPRESSO AT HOME". This comprehensive guide is over 11,000 words aimed at helping newer home baristas solve problems on their own.
THE COFFEE (Miscela)- Of course, even if all the other three categories are fully satisfied, you can't spin straw into gold. "GIGO," as they say. Unfortunately, for new home baristas, the word "espresso," when it comes to coffee beans, often means those very dark, very oily, and very stale beans in supermarket bins. The appearance and smell of these beans can keep some people from ever tasting espresso.
Just as bad as black and stale beans are the beans roasted in Europe and sent overseas. Regardless of packaging, these beans are just stale, and there is no viable way around that fact. Properly blended, expertly roasted, freshly roasted, and ground per use is really the only way to get excellent espresso.
THE GRINDER (Macinatura)- Ahhh HAA! Here we are. Quite often, here is where we find the source of the greatest number of complaints from new baristas in the various forums. The user will complain of overly-bitter taste, uneven pours, sometimes bitter, sometimes sour, and generally inconsistent results even when, "...all other factors have been perfectly controlled."
It is most difficult to convince a new home barista that the grinder is, by far, the most important part of the equipment. Many times an espresso machine gift gets paired by the recipient with an inadequate grinder and that is a formula for frustration and a great reason why many espresso machines get used just a few times then spend the rest of their lives in the back of a cabinet or on a shelf in the garage.
A mediocre espresso machine can make decent espresso when the beans are ground by a quality grinder. On the other hand, a great espresso machine is likely to turn out bitter beverages when paired with a low-quality grinder that creates a grind with lots of dust and a wide range or particle sizes. Worse yet, some of the "economy" grinders do not even hold their settings from one session to the next, so any sort of consistency is impossible to achieve.
Let's take a look at the range of grinders and what to expect (NOTE: The price ranges are generalities and there are a number of exceptions. Use the prices below as a general guideline and shop carefully for the best price and best customer service.). Grinders come in many classes, and to the uninitiated, stepping from the lowest to the next step would seem sufficient. But there is so much involved here that it begs a closer look. Let's examine the "classes" of grinders. This is not any sort of "official" rating system, but a general look at what your money buys:
The bottom of the bunch is not a grinder at all but a rapidly-spinning, flat blade often called "whirley-blade" grinders. They consist of a small chamber in which resides a sharp, rapidly-spinning blade to do the work- nothing more than a glorified nut chopper. These sell for as little as $15 or so. They create a lot of very fine particles referred to as dust, create a very wide range of particle sizes ("from dust to pebbles"), and have no control over the size of the particles other than how long you hold the on button down. These will work (and just barely so) for drip machines or other methods which use a paper filter, but the dust creates bitterness in the cup. In the realm of espresso, file these under "waste of money."
The next step up graduates the barista into burr grinders, but these vary so widely in quality that a book could be filled with their attributes - or lack thereof. Selling for about $50 to around $175 or so. Some of these would suffice for drip, perk, and even a few would work for press pot coffee, but they generally lack the precision in design and quality grinding burrs needed for espresso. Some are not even sufficient for that. See my blog's Chapter 79, "The Cost of Grinder Frugality" for an example. One exception in this price range might be a hand grinders. There are a few hand grinders available that work for espresso, but many people find hand grinding enough coffee for more than about one or two doubles is tedious, and for folks with any sort of physical problem (such as arthritis, carpal tunnel, etc.) these are inappropriate. And as with electric grinders, there are some good hand grinders and some not so much.
Now we step onto the doorstep of what will work for espresso. The next selection of grinders runs in the $200 to $275 range or a little more. While these are higher quality grinders and will suffice for espresso, as a class these generally lack the ability to fine tune the grind setting for espresso. In other words, you will get one or maybe two "settings" that you will find match up to your equipment and that's about it.
From about $300 to $500 you reach a level where some very nice grinders reside. This is where you break into the range of grinders which are stepless. That means that instead of having a number of clicks, or set steps to choose for adjusting the grind, you will find grinders which have an infinite adjustment range. Most of these grinders do produce a grind of very good quality which will please a new home barista. Just because a grinder is stepless does not mean it is a quality grinder, but it is one step towards that end.
After about $500 up to about $800 you are stepping into some very high quality waters. This is where you start finding brands of grinders often found in coffee shops. These are not only designed to last, they give repeatable results. They have high-quality motors, and burr mounting systems that are robust enough to hold the burrs in precise alignment. Being aware that even with mid-range grinders, just one click stop is an adjustment of .001" in the spacing of the burrs, these are precision devices. Some of these are designed for long-term, rough-service use in coffee shops. When treated well in the home these can last decades without much more than a change of burrs every five or six years or longer.
From about $900 and up you find grinders designed for serious commercial use in coffee shops. This range tops out at amazing levels (to most folks). There are grinders in this range that sell for over $2000. One in particular weighs 62 pounds!
In the world of grinders I have taken you from toy, to sublime, to amazing, to insane... It's all part of a hobby that comes with its own hand basket. I don't ever recommend anyone spend $2000 for a coffee grinder (although I know some folks who have! And, yes, for home use!).
But I will, once again, state that the grinder is the one area where most new home baristas scrimp. I assume that, psychologically, they assume that the espresso machine makes the espresso and the grinder "only" grinds the coffee. But no other form of coffee making extracts so much from the bean, and no other form is so dependent on the grind quality - and thus the grinder.
Time and time again I read reports of folks who have gone from a basic grinder (such as the $80 department store variety), to a high-quality, "real" espresso grinder, and they tell us what an amazing and dramatic difference it made in the quality of their espresso. It's fairly universal. When I started out back in late 2000, I thought the Cuisinart grinder we already owned would be sufficient and would save us some money, but after a bit of research I stepped up to a quality grinder that served my needs for about seven years. Many do not realize that in time, and end up frustrated trying to get drinkable espresso.
But how much should you spend on a grinder? There is no one answer to that question. As you shop for a grinder keep in mind that it is the beginning of a chain of preparation and that everything that comes after it is highly dependent on the grind quality. With that in mind, think about buying in steps. Get a quality grinder now and match it to an espresso machine later. For now, use the grinder with a more affordable brewing device. Maybe a pour-over cone or a press pot.
If you think $150 is enough to spend on a grinder, keep in mind that for a high-end grinder, that is the approximate cost of replacement burrs. If you are thinking about spending less than about $300, take some time to ask on some of the various coffee forums and see what they say. Also, check the user reviews, but not at shopping sites such as Amazon.com. Go to a coffee forum and search there. There are plenty of user reviews of equipment to read at CoffeeGeek.com But be aware that user reviews can be tilted towards the positive when the ownership duration is short when the review was written. if you are not sure, buy from a company with some type of "Buyer's Remorse" return policy.
So hopefully you found this article before shopping. If you are still looking for an espresso set up, whether for you or someone else, three words to remember are grinder, grinder, grinder.