Education

We aim to teach! Whether you're new to the coffee world, or a seasoned home barista, we want to help you learn the best ways and techniques to make coffee you love!
  • Pressurized Vs. Unpressurized - What's the Difference?

    A classic question for new espresso machine customers is what's the difference between an unpressurized and pressurized portafilter basket. The answer is actually pretty simple, but to understand the whole story we need to start with the basics. First of all, the portafilter is what holds the coffee when brewing espresso. It's what you grind, distribute, and tamp in. Water is then pushed through the "puck" of coffee contained in the portafilter to brew the espresso. With all of this in mind, we know that we need pressure to make this happen. That pressure is created when the pumped water meets the finely ground coffee. All of this is why espresso requires very fine coffee, so that there is the perfect amount of resistance as water is pressed through.

    The basket is the insert that holds the coffee in the portafilter. Removed from the portafilter, it looks like a metal cup with holes in the bottom. These holes are what ultimately lets the brewed coffee through into your cup. So where does the pressurized vs. unpressurized terminology come in?

    The basics

    Unpressurized baskets are what you find in higher end machines, and always how professional espresso is brewed. These are baskets that function entirely as mentioned above. In an unpressurized basket, nearly all of the resistance is created by the coffee, not by the basket. When everything is dialed in, this creates the best result, because you're making the coffee and the pump do all the work.

    Pressurized baskets are a little bit different. These baskets use one of a few different methods to artificially add resistance. In some cases, a small chamber with offset holes acts as that resistance. Others designs use a smaller set of holes centered in the middle of the basket to slow extraction. In any case, the result is artificial resistance that slows down the brewing process, giving more time for the coffee to extract.

    So why would you want one over the other?

    As noted above, unpressurized portafilters naturally provide the best extraction, creating the best espresso. With that said, this also takes a very fine grind that is carefully dialed in. This means that you have to spend time on getting everything just right, and have an espresso specific grinder. Unpressurized baskets create less perfect espresso, but are less finicky and can handle a coarser grind. It's up to you to determine where the sweet spot is for you!

  • Coffee Extraction In Non-Espresso Brewing

    We talk a lot about sour vs. bitter shots in terms of espresso, but extraction matters for other brew methods too! Drip, pourover, press, espresso, cold brew, and more are all just different ways to get molecules to bond. We thought we'd talk a bit about extraction in pourover and drip coffee too!

    Sour Vs. Bitter

    You may already know that espresso shots can turn out bitter our sour. This is usually because your grind is too course or fine. A bitter shot is due to under-extraction and a sour shot is the opposite. What's happening here is that the bitter shot is being run through grounds that are too course. This means the water comes through the coffee grounds without getting a chance to properly bond with the coffee molecules. Sour shots are the opposite. In this case, the grind is too fine, making it harder for water to pass through and over extracting the coffee. Both of these things can happen in other brew methods as well!

    While its true that drip and pourover coffee are less demanding in terms of grounds, they still matter. What you're looking for here is consistency as much as fine-ness, because these brewing methods just work differently than espresso. In the case of espresso, water is being pumped through the puck of grounds. This means that finer grounds are needed to "stop" the water. In the case of drip and pourover, gravity is the thing pulling the water through. That means that much coarser grounds will work. That said, consistent grounds are important to ensure even extracation. So how do you correct for sour and bitter shots?

    Grind and Flow Rate

    The first thing to do is check your grind. Much like with espresso, if you're getting sour pourovers, consider making your grind a bit coarser. Do the opposite for bitter pots. Another thing you can seek to modify is your pour rate, and your amounts per pour. While the difference here should be minuscule, using a Gooseneck kettle will keep you from pouring too fast. In terms of amount, more water in your filter can lead to a faster flow rate through the coffee. Using less water per pour if your coffee is bitter and a bit more if its sour may not fix the problem, but it's a thing to try.

    Again though, grind courseness and consistency is almost always the most important thing!

  • Espresso Vs. Drip Grinders

    We get a lot of questions about what makes a good drip grinder Vs. espresso. We often get questions about the best grinder for both applications as well. There are a lot of things that go into a grinder, so we wanted to provide some tips for what makes each type tick.

    Drip Grinders

    What makes a great drip grinder is consistency. It's fairly well understood that larger burrs can lead to finer grind. In the case of a great drip brewer we're more interested in control settings and consistency than getting as fine as possible. Because drip brews require less fine adjustments, stepless controls are additional nice-to-haves, but not a necessity. What is important is consistency. A grinder with a decent sized (40mm or so) burrset and conical shape will provide quality, consistent grounds.

    Ultimately the point we're getting to here is that drip brewing is simply less demanding than espresso. This means that buying a drip grinder should be a much smaller dent in your budget than an espresso grinder.

    Espresso Grinders

    For espresso, consistency and control are important, but power is required as well. Espresso brewing requires a highly precise grind due to the pressure at play. This is especially true when using unpressurized portafilter baskets, because your grounds are helping to create that pressure. This means that you need very fine grounds that are also very consistent. The best way to get this is with larger (50mm or larger) burrs. Finding a compromise between burr size, shape, and price is key here. This need for more fine grounds is also why some grinders just can't to drip and espresso. Such a wide range of positions isn't possible for every burrset to do well.

    Another important facet here is control. Unlike other brew methods, desired fineness will shift from roast to roast. Some coffees will want a slightly coarser or finer grind depending on origin, roast level, and more. This all means that super fine adjustments are very important. You'll also need to carefully dial in your grinder for the best results for espresso whenever you refill it with a new bean. Which leads us to our conclusion...

    Why Not Both?

    Instead of hunting for a grinder to do both drip and espresso, consider budgeting for a separate one for each method. This may seem like overkill, but switching from your carefully dialed in espresso grind to drip and then re-dialing it is a large frustration. Even if you carefully mark where your espresso grind is set, it can be quite difficult to find the spot precisely. On the other hand, drip grinders are so comparatively affordable that by sacrificing a bit of budget for a separate one you can really make your coffee setup more usable.

    It's for this reason that we hesitate to recommend grinders that can handle both types of brewing, even if they technically do exist. Just make your life easier by adding a small drip grinder to your kitchen! We're sure it'll save you some headaches.

  • Thermoblocks Vs. Thermocoils

    Several years ago we offered a description of thermoblock espresso machine heating elements. You can find that post here!

    Thermoblocks

    A thermoblock is a type of heating element commonly found in home espresso machines. Unlike commercial machines, which feature a boiler, many home machines simply pull water through a heating element for brewing and steaming. Thermoblocks are heating elements of this type that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In these machines, water travels through a heated block of metal. The water heats up as it passes through the block, preparing it for steaming or brewing. By altering the temperature and flow rate through the block, temperatures for each application can be met. The result is a relatively inexpensive method for heating water for espresso brewing and steaming.

    The downside to thermoblocks is that they can lake consistency and longevity. While a high quality thermoblock espresso machine can be nearly commercial grade, cheaper versions exist as well. Ultimately, thermoblocks are a good option for home espresso heating, but newer thermocoils continue to see more use.

     

    Thermocoils

    Thermocoil heating elements function similarly to thermoblocks. These elements still pull water through the heating element. The difference is that instead of pulling the water through a multiple piece chamber, they use a tube. These tubes are usually made out of copper or another metal. Because the water circulates in the chamber more thoroughly, these heating elements are generally more consistent. While you still have to allow time for temp changes from steaming to brewing, overall they are usually faster too.

    On top of this, thermocoils tend to last longer. Because the water circulates in a closed tube, they tend to be less prone to leaks and failures. The best part is that as thermocoil technology evolves, the price is coming down. The result is even better home espresso than you could get several years ago!

     

  • Distilled Water: Should You Switch?

    This is an update to an article we posted in 2012, which can be found here!

    One of the most important elements of brewing coffee is the water you use to brew with. By using cold, filtered water you'll get better tasting coffee that's better for your machine. The reason filtered water is recommended is because harder water with high mineral content harms machines. This kind of water leads to limescale build up, requiring a "descaling" of your machine. By using filtered water you sidestep this issue and get better tasting coffee too. So why not simply use distilled water and remove minerals from the equation entirely? Well, for a couple of reasons!

    Machine Health

    The biggest reason you should avoid distilled water is the damage it can cause to equipment. Water naturally bonds to minerals, it's why groundwater is so rich in those minerals in the first place. Distilled water removes the minerals, but not the propensity for water to bond with them. This means that water with a low enough mineral content can sit in a machine and leech minerals from its surroundings. When sitting inside a fancy espresso machine, this means that it'll leach the minerals found in the brass, copper, steel, and nickel that make up the pipes, boiler, and reservoir of most machines. Further, some machines use a very tiny electrical charge to determine whether or not there is water in the reservoir. If the water contained is devoid of minerals, it may not pick up the charge and register, triggering the "reservoir empty" light.

    But what about flavor?

    Coffee Flavor

    As we know, coffee extraction is a chemical process. Water that is too hard doesn't have enough "room" for the coffee to bond with the water molecules. Think of a sponge, one saturated with clear water, and the other dry. If you were to submerge the sponge in a bowl of food-colored water, what would happen? While the already soaked sponge would pick up some color, the dry sponge would pick up more. This is similar to what is happening to coffee as it extracts. On the flip-side, too much empty space (too dry of a sponge) will over-extract the coffee, resulting in a bitter flavor.

    The Specialty Coffee Association has determined that a 150 parts per million degree of minerals is the best balance. This provides enough minerals to keep the coffee from over-saturating, but not a hardness that impedes the process. Given all this, your best route to the best coffee is still good ol' fashioned filtered water!

  • Espresso vs Coffee Beans: Is There a Real Difference?

    This is an update to an old post which you can find right over here!

    A question that people new to espresso ask all the time is "can I use any bean?" The answer is a bit complicated! We'll dig into what separates espresso and drip beans, and give a little insight into superautomatic appropriate beans as well. Read on to learn!

    What's the Difference?

    Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Coffee is coffee. When we see beans labeled for espresso, it's not because it's a different kind of bean. Ultimately, the thing that extracts the flavor from coffee beans is brew method. What is important to understand is the ways in which brew method cultivates the natural flavors of the coffee bean. This is where that espresso vs. drip beans distinction comes into play. The espresso brew method is pressurized. This means that more delicate flavors are often smashed together when brewing without high end equipment and beans. Thankfully, modern third-wave roasters use high quality beans, and its easier than ever to access great equipment. With that said, espresso generally leads to more intense flavors, hence the distinction between beans for that vs. drip.

    So with that in mind, it's important that you're intensifying flavors that you want to. There are plenty of great roasts that work best with less intensity. Very rich, fruity roasts, for example, often work better in a drip or pourover brew. On the flip side, sugary, chocolatey roasts make for delicious espresso to a wide range of coffee drinkers. So to answer the "what's the difference" question, the difference is all in the flavor profile.

    So Why the Distinction?

    So that brings us to why a roaster would make the distinction in the first place. The simple answer is user error! You can use any coffee for any brew method, but when a roast works well for a specific one, it just works. As a roaster, you'd likely hate it if your wonderful new espresso was described as bland by a drip drinker. By contrast, a coffee that needs the extra oomph of pressure from espresso brewing may be less palatable in drip. Roasters want you to have the best experience with their coffee, hence the guidelines. We try to help too, offering brewing suggestions for every coffee we sell in the product description.

    But this doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment! Brewing coffee is an art, and you may just find something wonderful. Just know that it's much harder to preserve delicate floral notes in espresso. On the other hand, it's sometimes hard to get straight chocolate notes to shine in a pourover. By understand the process of brewing and what each method adds to the coffee, you can make informed choices about what to buy for different methods.

    What about Superautos?

    You know we love our superautos, so how do they factor in? The biggest thing you'll want to be careful of in superautos is level of oil on the surface of the beans. Oily beans clog up grinders, so try to avoid darker roasts! Superautos work great with any coffee designed for espresso, and many other blends as well! The thing superautos don't do well is preserving the little notes on the edge of a brew. They're great for convenience, but not as precise as a semi-auto process. Because of this, we recommend roasts with simpler, stand by flavors. With that said, it's hard to go wrong and get something totally terrible for the method.

    We hope that this provides some insight on the great "drip vs espresso" question, and we how you enjoy some experimentation!

  • Choosing a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - Part 2

    Last week we took a look at some key factors in choosing a semi-auto espresso machine. This week we wanted to touch on some odds and ends of the espresso machine purchasing process!

    What Else Is There?

    In addition to the core elements we discussed last week, espresso machines can do a little something extra too. Gauges, control mechanisms, types of steam wands, and PID Controllers are all bells and whistles that can add substance or just cost. So what are some nifty extras to keep an eye out for?

    One especially common talking point for higher end machines is PID controllers. We have an entire article devoted to how these devices work, so I won't detail everything. That said, to put it simply, PID controllers regulate temperatures. Instead of a thermostat that waits for water to dips below a certain temperature to activate the heating element, a machine with a PID controller is always monitoring water temps. This makes for much more consistent temperatures, and better espresso when brewing.

    What about pressure gauges? This is a question we get a lot. For example, when moving from the Barista Express to the Barista Pro, they dropped the mechanical steam gauge. This bothered some folks, and it's understandable why on the surface. In reality, a pressure gauge is largely only useful for diagnosing problems in the machine. While it can be fun and reassuring to watch the needle on a gauge jump, they aren't really needed for successful operation. This is a nice to have that won't add loads of cost, but don't discount a machine just because it doesn't have one of these.

    Steam and Control

    Control interfaces, on the other hand, can be make or break elements. While we are confident in the interfaces of the machines that we sell at SCG, not all machines are created equal. Oddly placed levers, bad buttons, or worse, can really hamper your enjoyment of using a machine. Personal preference is really going to play a role in determining what your favorite type of interface is, but know that it's reasonable to consider this carefully when shopping.

    Finally, steam wands and water spouts may be a big deal for you too. Some machines, like the Breville Bambino, feature auto steam wands. These can simplify your steaming process and allow you to focus on dialing in your shots. That said, most will prefer finer control. What's nice is that in most cases you can use manual or auto steaming, so you're not locked in. It's a feature you might want to look for if you're brand new to milk steaming in general. It's also important to consider how much a hot water valve matters to you. If you're a regular Americano drinker, you may want to make sure that your machine of choice has this feature, and not all machines do.

    The last thing on the list is, of course, aesthetic. You'll want to love the way your machine looks, because it will likely be a long time before you buy another one!

  • Choosing a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - Part 1

    Choosing a semi-automatic espresso machine can be hard. With prices ranging from $100 to many thousands of dollars it can be difficult to know what matters. Read on for some helpful tips and info on picking out a new espresso machine!

     

    Price

    You may be tempted by machines that offer espresso and milk steaming for around the hundred dollar mark. While it's understandable to want to save on a machine, price is actually a good indicator of quality in the espresso machine market. A very inexpensive machine can be a great way decide if you like the taste of espresso, but it isn't likely to last or produce quality beverages.

    We find the sweet spot for first time buyers to be in the $500-$1000 range. There are numerous machines in this price range that offer quality and consistency alongside reliability. Above $1,000 you're mostly paying for more advanced features that give you finer control over your brewing. You may also be looking at more generational machines with components that can last decades.

    While a well researched first time user could certainly get their money's worth out of a high end machine, that $500-$100 range is a good thing to shoot for. Especially because you will need a grinder capable of espresso grinding to go with your machine!

    Pump

    Espresso is brewed by pumping water through a puck of finely ground coffee at 9 BAR. This is achieved with powerful pumps that are generally either vibratory or rotary. Lower end machines often don't have pumps capable of pushing water through at 9 BAR of pressure, so they use pressurized portafilter baskets to make up the difference. These portafilter baskets create additional pressure, but they don't always offer the purest flavor from the grounds.

    If you're just starting our with espresso you may want to practice with pressurized filters, as they are more forgiving of a grind or tamp that's not quite right. However, most espresso drinkers like to quickly move to unpressurized espresso brewing. For that reason, we recommend ensuring your espresso machine will be able to brew with an unpressurized filter.

    On the higher end, pump type comes down to reliability and how long it'll last. An expensive Izzo or Rocket Espresso machine will have a high quality pump that should work for decades. On top of this, they are usually designed so that its easy to work on and replace the pump, whereas less expensive machines might not offer this.

    Latte dripping from a coffee machine

    Boiler Type

    Perhaps the most important part of a semi-auto espresso machine is the boiler and heating element. All other things being equal, this is the thing you'll notice the biggest difference in in terms of usability. The obvious thing to consider here is boiler material. A sturdy stainless steel boiler in the Izzo espresso machines offered on SCG will last decades without a hint of leaking. However, this isn't necessarily a must have element of your first espresso machine. One thing you should consider carefully is how the heating element works, and how this effects heat up time.

    A traditional single boiler design can take many minutes to warm up, which often means you'll want to turn the machine on well before brewing, or leave it on (always check your manual before leaving your machine on for long periods. Many aren't designed for this). On the flipside, the thermocoil heating element in a Breville Bambino or Barista Pro can heat up in seconds. This is also important for milk steaming, as you'll need a lot of heat to steam a whole pitcher of milk. Stronger, faster heating elements help you to complete this process quicker.

    Again, on the higher end, you can purchase machines with multiple boilers. These kinds of machines allow you to steam milk and brew at the same time, as each process pulls from a different boiler. While this is extremely convenient and worth it for power users, it's absolutely not a thing you should get hung up on with your first purchase.

    What's Next?

    Next week we'll dig into more of the nuances with picking out a semi-auto espresso machine, such as PID controllers, control mechanisms, interfaces, and more.

  • Water Filtration and Why It Matters

    Water filtration is a big, complex subject, but one that really matters! Mineral content in water is the number one killer of espresso machines. With this in mind, it's extremely important to properly filter and read your water. Using hard tap water can lead to premature limescale buildup. This can cause real damage to your machine in the worst case, and will at least demand more frequent maintenance.

    There is, however, good news! Thanks to chemistry there is a whole world of resources to help you use the perfect water with your machine. So where does it start?

     

    Water Hardness

    Filtration starts with the source of the water. Depending on your location and the quality of your water, filtering it can be more or less of a strain. Most espresso machines come with test strips that help you determine your water hardness. Hardness refers to the level of minerals in your water. For water that has higher lime content, you'll need to change filters more frequently.

    Many machines actually offer helpful tracking of your filters based on hardness. Jura, Saeco, Breville, and others all track when you install a filter, and what your water hardness is. From there, the machine will remind you when its time to change the filter. Many of these machines do this simply over time, but there are some machines that even read the amount of water that comes through the filter. These machines allow you to track when you should change the filter more exactly.

    The main way the above manufacturer's filters differ is in how you pick them. Jura's Clearyl filters have plastic parts that match the receiving parts on the tank. From there you can determine if you need a white or blue filter. In the case of Saeco, they offer a single AquaClean across their currently supported line of machines, making filtration easy. Finally, Breville offers two simple filters that are easy to tell the difference between.

    But what if your machine doesn't offer a proprietary water filter?

    Bottled, Pre-filtered, and More

    In many cases, if you don't have a smart filtration system you'll want to pre-filter your water. Not all filters are created equal, so it's a good idea to check the hardness of your filtered water carefully as well. Based on this hardness, you can determine how safe it is to use pre-filtered water to fill the tank of your espresso machine. Some manufacturers, like La Marzocco, suggest that if your water is too hard, use bottled water. Using bottled water isn't as simple as using spring water though, as certain bottled waters can have high mineral content as well.

    Make sure you check the bottled water you use. If you're not sure a brand should be used in your machine, contact the manufacturer for the ultimate yes or no answer.

    It's important to remember that water filters must be changed and maintained too. Whether using a smart filter or pre-filtered water, make sure that you change your filters regularly. Water run through an expired filter could be too hard, causing real maintenance issues for your machine. In the case of certain E61 Grouphead machines, at home descaling can actually damage your machine. For this reason you'll need to take it to a technician for its regular maintenance. By properly filtering your water you'll have more time between those descalings!

    On top of all of this, filtered, fresh water just makes better coffee. By using the best possible water, you eliminate that variable from the brewing process, and allow the coffee to truly speak for itself. So make sure your filters are fresh and your water is clean today!

  • Espresso Machine Maintenance

    One key element of owning an espresso machine is maintaining it. This means regular cleaning and maintenance. We get a lot of questions about how often one should backflush and descale, so we wanted to talk a little bit about that here! We'll start with more frequent maintenance like cleaning the grouphead and backflushing, then get into descaling.

    A lot of your cleaning schedule will revolve around usage. If you brew multiple drinks per day, you'll want to clean more frequently. For the purposes of this article we're assuming you make 1-3 drinks per day. Another thing to note is that we're keeping this general. Most machines, from Brevilles and DeLonghis all the way up to Rockets and Izzos will require the maintenance outlined here. You should, of course, take the guidelines of the manufacturer into account when planning maintenance! We're also catering this piece for those with semi-automatic machines. Superautomatics have more guided cleaning cycles, but we'll talk more about maintaining them in future posts as well!

    Daily and Weekly Cleaning

    One easy to do thing that will keep your machine making great espresso day to day is to ensure that your portafilter and the screen in the brew group is free of coffee grounds. This means giving your portafilter a quick wipedown after every shot, ensuring it is dry and clean. You should also run a quick rinse of water through the screen after each shot before you reattach the portafilter. Simply start a brew cycle and stop it to push some water through. This clears and grounds that may have clung to the screen during brewing. It's also VERY important to purge the steam wand whenever you steam milk! This is as easy as turning the steam on outside of milk after you finish steaming. This will clear any milk that gets sucked back into the wand during steaming. You'll want to be sure to completely wipe off any stuck on milk as well. As always, when handling the steam wand, be careful not to touch a hot wand or the steam it produces.

    You will also want to perform regular backflushing of the grouphead. Backflushing is done by using the blind basket (the one with no holes!) in your portafilter along with a little bit of water and/or backflush detergent. You'll then run a backflushing cycle, which differs from machine to machine (your manual should explain how to do this). It's worth it to backflush with water every day or two, but detergent backflushing is only needed every 1-3 weeks depending on use. A busy cafe might backflush with detergent daily, but this isn't necessary for home use.

    It's also worth using a grouphead brush to scrub the grouphead every week or so. This can free and clingy grounds and keep the screen clean. These tools make this easy, but a used toothbrush or other small, handheld brush can work to clean the screen too.

    Descaling and Steam Wand Cleaning

    The two maintenance items you'll perform less frequently are thorough cleaning of the steam wand and descaling. The former involves using a milk system cleaner with your machine's steam wand to clean out any milk gunk stuck inside the wand. This process can vary from system to system, so refer to your manual and the cleaning product's guidelines to clean it properly! This process should be performed every month or two on your espresso machine. Soaking the steam tips in a cleaning solution like the one above in this timeframe can also keep your steaming system fresh! Just be sure to fully wipe down and purge the wand to ensure no cleaning solution ends up in your latte!

    Descaling is, of course, one of the most important things to stay on top of to maintain your machine. You can descale with a 50/50 mix of water and white vinegar, or with a dedicated descaling cleaner. To descale, you'll want to run the water/cleaner mix through the machine until you've pulled through about a cup of water. This allows the mix to fill the boiler and pipes of the machine. Next, you'll shut of the machine for 20 minutes to an hour. This will give the solution time to remove the limescale buildup inside the machine. Next, run about a quarter of the reservoir through the brew head and the steam wand, then shut the machine off for another 20 minutes. Finally, run the rest of the reservoir through the machine, and then run two or more reservoirs of clean water through the brew head and the steam wand. In the end you'll have a freshly descaled machine!

    It should be noted that some machines should NOT be descaled by anyone other than a professional technician. This is true, most notably, of Rockets. A quick search for your machine + descaling should help you determine if its safe to descale your machine at home. This is a process that should be performed every 3-6 months. The main factors affecting time between descales are how frequently you use the machine and the hardness of the water you run through it.

    We hope this look at normal maintenance is helpful for you! By adhering to a simple schedule like this you can keep your machine running in great shape for many years.

     

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