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  • 2020 Getting Started Guide: Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines - Part 1

    The semi-automatic espresso machine is the cornerstone of the serious home barista setup. A semi-automatic machine is the sort that requires the user to manually grind, tamp, and brew espresso. It takes finesse and practice that a superauto cuts out, but the reward is worth it. While superauto machines make some great drinks, there's nothing like pulling just the flavor you're after from a tricky single origin.

    But it can be daunting to get started with semi-autos. There's a lot to choose from! For this reason, we're taking a look at some great initial buys in part 1 of our guide. Next time we'll cover some upgrade options. For now, we're going to talk about a couple of first time grinder and machine options to get you brewing!

    Choosing a Grinder

    Choosing a grinder is one of the most important parts of your first espresso setup. Grinders can elevate a less powerful machine by producing perfect, consistent grounds. This is why we recommend budgeting around your grinder first, if you're not looking at an all in one machine like the Breville Barista Express. So what are the best options? One of the most solid options for your first espresso grinder is a Breville Smart Grinder Pro. This grinder is easy to use, offers features that punch above its price point, and most importantly, will grind fine enough for unpressurized espresso brewing. That last point is key, because many other grinders that do this are well above this price point. Another option is the Rancilio Rocky, which is also a consistent, excellent grinder that may last you longer than the Smart Grinder Pro. It does come at a higher price point and with less fancy features, though. Either way, both of these grinders will provide a solid foundation for years, and allow you to upgrade big on your machine choice!

    Choosing a Machine

    Here it is, your big choice, what machine will you start with? Thankfully, recent years have provided some excellent starter options. First of all, there are the Breville machines. The Barista Express combines grinder and brewer into one affordable package. This is a great way to get started, but is inflexible, you can't upgrade the grinder separate from the machine, or vice versa. The other Breville options is the SCG Exclusive Breville Bambino Plus. This is the same machine as the Bambino Pro you can find at other retailers, but includes an unpressurized portafilter. We've talking about filter pressurization in the past, but having the option to go unpressurized is really great! Paired with the above grinders, you'll be able to pull delicious, cafe quality shots from the Bambino Plus.

    Odds and Ends

    There's some other odds and ends that you might want to consider with your first setup. First of all, a knockbox like this one from Dreamfarm is a great addition to your set up. It'll allow you to eject pucks from your portafilter without carrying it to the trash can. A tamping mat like this Rocket Espresso offering will also help you keep your station clean. Finally, it might have to be an upgrade option, but a scale like the Brewista Smart Scale II is a great way to weigh your shots to dial in the perfect flavor with your machine.

    We hope this helps you make some choices for your first machine! We'll be back soon with some fantastic upgrade options for those jumping up to a more expensive machine.

    Check out the rest of our getting started guides!

  • Cleaning Milk Systems

    If you're anything like us, ensuring that your milk steaming wand or siphon is clean is super important. Buildup and gunk in milk systems is one of the nastier things that can happen to an espresso machine. But never fear! It's easy and affordable to keep your steam system in tip-top shape. Let's take a look at how to maintain the milk system on a couple different types of espresso machines!

    Semi-automatics

    Semi-automatic machines typically have a simple wand system for steaming. This is the type of machine where you hold a pitcher of milk up to the wand to heat it. Using a product like Urnex's Rinza is the easiest way to clean your steam wand, and can be used for panarello style wands as well.

    All you have to do to use Rinza is soak the wand itself for 20-30 minutes. If your machine allows it you can leave the wand attached, but make sure you're able to submerge the wand in the mix of Rinza and water.

    After soaking, rinse the wand and run steam through it to clear out any of the solution.

    Superautos

    Superautos are simpler to clean, but it can seem complicated because of their software systems. The best way you can maintain them is by using the specific cleaning agents that the manufacturer recommends. However, in a pinch, Rinza can work in superautos as well.

    Usually cleaning a superautomatic milk system is as simple as diluting the cleaning agent and using the prompts in your machine's menu to run a milk system cleaning cycle. For some machines, a specific button combination is needed to activate the cleaning process. As always, consult your machine's manual for the full rundown.

    In any case, we do recommend running a few rinse cycles before actually using the machine to fully rinse out any cleaning solution.

    So there you have it! Keeping your wand or milk system clean is a key thing for getting the most our of your machine. You should clean your steam system every month or two depending on use, and ALWAYS make sure to purge your steam want and rinse your siphon or carafe after every use!

  • Video Roundup: 2/28/20

    Hey coffee fans!

    It's time for another video roundup here at SCG. Let's jump in!

    First up it's two Eureka Grinders squaring off in a Crew Comparison with Gail!

    And next, and in depth look at the La Marzocco GS/3 with John:

    And finally, Allie took a look at the Acaia Lunar scale:

    That's all for now! Join us again next week for more videos!

  • 2020 Getting Started Guide: Superautos

    Interested in espresso? Looking to cut pod coffee out? Still want the simplicity of push button operation? It sounds like you need a superauto!

    We've talked about superautomatic espresso machines at length here. So much so that you probably already know what these machines are. As a refresher, a superautomatic espresso machine is a machine that uses whole bean coffee to deliver delicious espresso based drinks. They are sort of like "cafes in a box." The trade-off is that no automated process can truly outdo a skilled barista on professional equipment. With that said, a superauto machine on your kitchen counter is an incredible convenience that can still provide a tasty morning does of caffeine. Superautos also cut down on the waste generated by pod machines, though they don't make drip coffee. There are a number of factors to think about when selecting a superauto. We'll touch on these things as we go through this guide to buying your first machine, or upgrading!

    First Machine

    For your first machine it's hard to argue against the Philips Carina. Getting into espresso for the first time is an expensive endeavor that the Carina makes a lot less scary. This is a simple to use machine that may seem light on features, but is actually a fantastic value. You can control dose (the amount the machine grinds for each shot) volume, and pull shots of espresso, long, coffee style lungo shots, hot water for americanos, and steamed milk. These are the core functions of any superauto espresso machine, so to have them surfaced like on the Carina is a boon. Add to all of this the easy to use AquaClean filtration system, and you've got an affordable winner of a beginner machine. Just remember to buy a filter with the machine!

    One thing that is important to note about the Carina is its panarello steam wand. This means that you'll need to manually hold a pitcher of milk up to the wand to steam it, like on a semi-auto machine. For many, the promise of automatic milk steaming is why they want a superauto in the first place. If auto steaming is a make or break feature for you, consider checking out the Philips 3200 Latte Go. This machine is just like the Carina in many ways, but includes a carafe based steaming system for automatic steaming.

    The other great thing about the Carina is it'll help you understand exactly what you want out of your next machine. Maybe you'll settle on the idea that more control over the shot is key for you. In this case, you may want to upgrade to a semi-auto machine. Maybe you like the superautomatic nature of the Carina, but you don't need the milk steaming. In this case, upgrading to something like the Jura A1, which brews espresso only, may be the perfect solution.

    Upgrading to a New Machine

    If you're looking at upgrading from an older machine and have a budget of over $1,000, consider the Jura E6. The E6 produces some exceptional espresso thanks to Jura's P.E.P. brewing system and is a definite upgrade from an interface perspective. Using its vibrant screen and simple button system you'll be able to set dose, temp, shot length, and milk volume for your drinks. One-touch cappuccinos with the E6's automatic siphon system are a delicious option as well. Finally, the maintenance tools on the E6 are really something. The comprehensive software is great at reminding you to rinse, clean, and descale the machine.

    The only real negative on this machine is the lack of milk control that you get. While the cappuccino foam that the siphon system on the E6 creates is decent, it just can't do lattes. This may be a dealbreaker for some folks. If that's you, then it's worth taking a look at the Miele 6350.

    The 6350 offers great milk texture for lattes and cappuccinos, delicious coffee, and is easy to operate. It's expensive, but justifies its price with extra features like a hot water spout, brew group light, and a a spill-proof drip tray. It's an easy recommendation for anyone looking at buying the last machine they'll need.

    Stay tuned for more buying guides focused on drip brewing and semi-auto espresso machines!

    Check out the rest of our getting started guides!

  • Coffee Culture: Cowboy Coffee

    What do you think of when you think of cowboys? Cattle? Horses? Adventure (though this may be more fantasy than fact)? One thing we think of when we think of cowboys is their love of coffee! It's hard to start a day on the ranch without a stiff, hot cup of joe to wake you up. The cowboy method has been around for decades, but has seen something of a renaissance in recent years. This is largely because of how good this method of brewing can actually be!

    It's true, the typical thinking might be that heavy immersion brewed coffee would be too strong or bitter. It turns out, the opposite is true. But how id it brewed? Recipes vary, but generally coarse ground coffee is added to water that is either boiling or heating up to a boil. After a certain brew length, some cold water is poured into the pot, cooling the coffee to drinking temperature and stopping the brewing. This cold water also drives the grounds to the bottom of the pot, making it easy to pour grit-free coffee. Many coffee drinkers will say its some of the smoothest coffee they're ever had!

    But what's going on in that pot?

    The drinkability of cowboy coffee probably has a lot to do with the coarse grounds. Since these grounds won't dissolve into the coffee it prevents over-extraction and makes for buttery smooth coffee. This also means the heat of boiling water doesn't totally scorch the coffee like it would in a drip brew. While the principles work anywhere, it helps that being at high altitudes leads to a perfect boiling point right at 212 degree Fahrenheit. That brew as boiled immersion combined with the coarse grind and cold water to halt the process all adds up to a tasty cup of coffee!

    This means that coffees with a lot of classic coffee taste and smokier notes will come through well in cowboy coffee. This is because some of their stronger notes will be diminished thanks to the style.

    Despite the knee-jerk response from many specialty coffee enthusiasts to turn their noses up at this brew method, combining immersion brewing with craft coffee is a great way to kick it up a notch! Not to mention, we already use immersion brewing all the time in the craft coffee world. For example, the Fellow Duo Steeper uses similar concepts to cowboy coffee that uses a filter to filter out the grounds instead of pushing them to the bottom with cold water. Stovetop espresso brewers like the Ilsa Express also use immersion style brewing and high heat to brew and extract coffee.

    So pick up some of your favorite smoky beans, brew em' coarse and get to boilin'. Try some cowboy coffee!

  • Video Roundup: 2/21/20

    Hey coffee fans!

    It's time for another video roundup here at SCG.

    First up it's Allie with a Crew Review of the Ratio Six!

    Next we've got a Crew Comparison for the ages with the R Nine One Group from Rocket Espresso, and the GS/3 from La Marzocco!

    And finally, Allie and I brewed up some AKA Coffee to taste:

    That's all for now! We hope you enjoyed, go make some coffee you love this weekend!

  • 2020 Getting Started Guide: Pour Over

    It's time for the first of our series of buying guides! These guides will help you pick the perfect products to start your coffee journey. We'll cover a range of different brew methods and product ranges here. Today we're starting with pour over, one of the simplest, most cost effective ways to get started with craft coffee. Today we'll offer a starter and upgrade option each for a kettle, dripper, scale, grinder, and drink-ware.

    Overview

    Brewing pour over is a simple concept. You simply place your filter in your dripper, put the dripper on your drinkware, add medium-coarse ground coffee to the filter, then pour hot water over the grounds. How much per pour, and how many pours, is something you'll have to experiment with. While most coffees will work best with a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water, how much water you add with each pour is the tricky part.

    Because this brew method is nice and simple, the gear you need is pretty simple too!

    For a great all-in-one option, take a look at our pour over starter kit. We'll dig into more specific separate options, but this is a good deal if you don't want to read any further!

    Kettle

    The first piece of gear we're going to talk about for your initial setup is your kettle. There are two keys for picking out a kettle to brew pour over with: One, you want a gooseneck. The reason is that gooseneck kettles pour at just the right flow rate, so you can focus on timing and volume rather than rate of pour. The second thing you want to make sure of is that the kettle is variable temperature. You want to be able to set it to a temp rather than have it boil water and then cool. This is because you should be brewing your coffee at our around 200 degrees. You'll still want the flexibility to go a bit lower or a bit higher as well depending on taste and roast.

    With all of this in mind, the best starter kettle we can recommend is this Bonavita Variable Temp Kettle. It's simple, reliable, and affordable.

    For an upgrade, the Fellow EKG+ is expensive, but offers connectivity with Acaia's Brewbar app for dialing in specific recipes. More on that later!

    Scale

    Your scale is key because you need to ensure specific weights from measuring out coffee all the way to pouring. Getting an accurate scale that is resistant to water is a big plus, and many coffee specific scales offer some bells and whistles that make brewing pour over easier.

    For your first scale it's hard to go wrong with the Brewista Smart Brew. This scale offers excellent accuracy and even includes a basic timer. Plus, it's super affordable.

    For an upgrade, take a look at the Acaia Pearl and Pearl S. Both of these scales offer connected apps that work with the above mentioned EKG+. These apps let you dial in and save specific recipes to recreate the perfect pours for your favorite coffees.

    Grinder

    Your grinder is an interesting purchase. Any non-espresso burr grinder will work for pour over, but buying a grinder that offers some flexibility is useful in the long term. Maybe in a few months you'll want to brew in a press? What about drip brewers? As you can see, getting a good all around grinder for filter coffee is the best option. That said, the easiest way to avoid waste is to weigh your coffee before you grind it, rather than approximating an amount and tossing the extra.

    This means you want a hopper that's easy to work with. For a starter grinder for drip and pour over it's hard to go wrong with the Baratza Encore. In terms of consistency and performance, it's one of the best brew grinders ever. The only downside is that it is a little light on bells and whistles, offering timed grind and on/off options.

    It's hard to recommend grinder upgrades for pour over because you're really upgrading into specific things for specific reasons. The Eureka Mignon Filtro is an excellent option if you want to get hyper granular in your grind adjustments to extract every drop of flavor from your pour over. On the other hand, if you want to make brewing faster and more efficient, the Vario-W includes a built in weight function. Which direction you go is up to you!

    Dripper

    Your dripper is going to determine the type of filters you use and does have an impact on flavor. It's hard to understand what this impact is until you've tried coffees from a few different dripper styles. For this reason, we're recommending three different drippers that we think work great. Whichever one best fits your budget is the way to go!

    First up, the Hario V60 is one of the simplest, most popular drippers in the world.

    The Kalita Wave is also extremely popular, and has a fervent fanbase.

    Finally, a Chemex is a great option that offers unique flavor and a built in server. Perfect if you are making coffee for a group.

    Servers and Mugs

    Last but not least, you'll need something to brew into and drink out of! To get a clear view of the brewing process, and to brew multiple cups of coffee for yourself or to share, check out a server like the Bonavita Glass Carafe. If you're brewing for one, you can brew right into a mug like the Acme Union of the Fellow Joey!

    With all of that gear you should be good to go! Adding it all up may seem like a lot, but scales and grinders offer so many coffee applications beyond pour over. It's why we recommend starting with pour over, because lots of the parts you use will be transferable to other brew methods. Good luck with your first brew!

    Check out the rest of our getting started guides!

  • Brew Methods and Flavor Profiles

    We've talked at length about how to get started with different brewing methods. Sharing tips on brewing coffee is kind of our deal! An important piece of the puzzle that's often skipped though is helping you decide how you want to brew. There's more than a few factors in choosing a brew method, which we'll be sure to detail over the next few weeks. Today we're talking about an easy one: Flavor! Here we'll dig into the flavor profiles of each brew method to help you understand what you might like. This should also inform the types of coffees you might enjoy in each method.

    Drip

    The simplest, most common starting point for most people is a good ol' drip brew. While the principle here is the same as in pour over, drip brewing is distinct because we assume it's coming out of an electric brewer. To that end, we'll cover pour over in a separate section.

    Drip coffee is perhaps the most balanced brew method in terms of flavor. Typically if a coffee isn't specifically brewed for espresso, it'll at least taste fine in a drip brew. That means you're going to be getting lots of standard chocolate notes and any earthier flavors in the coffee. On the flip side, drip brewers can sometimes obscure lighter floral or fruit notes. To this end, the very best coffees in a drip brew are going to be well balanced blends and single origins.

    Press

    Press brewing is an immersion style method that lends itself to big, bold flavors. This results in a body and flavor profile somewhere between drip and espresso. Where drip presents smokier notes and chocolate flavors, press brewing will really amplify them. This means that you'll get an extra strong cup of coffee out of a press without going all the way to the syrupy espresso consistency.

    With that said, sometimes brighter single origins will actually be better as espresso than in a press. We really recommend doubling down on those perfect medium, or even slightly dark, roasts if you're brewing press.

    Pour Over

    Pour over is the taster's choice for trying out coffees. We use this method whenever we test coffees here at SCG. This is because pour over tends to be the best brew method for separating flavors. When we say separating, we mean that complex roasts come across as open as possible when brewed as a pour over. This is most noticeable with light coffees that feature floral and fruity notes. If you're trying to understand why a roaster listed pink bubblegum or jasmine in the tasting notes, this is the method to use.

    The trick with pour over is the number of variables. Where press and drip brewing are pretty simple, it's often difficult to re-brew the same pour over twice. This is because water flow rate, minor temperature variations, and timing all tend to vary from brew to brew. This can make it hard to stay consistent, but just means it takes some practice!

    Espresso

    Espresso brewing is one of the most complex methods to use, but also very repeatable once you've dialed in a roast with your setup. Pressurized brewing from espresso tends to extract the sweetest, richest pieces of a coffee's flavor. The result is a syrupy body that is easy to pull too bitter or sour. If you're someone who thinks they *don't* like espresso, there's a good chance you've had it brewed poorly! A good espresso should be smooth, sweet, and very chocolatey. On top of all of this, adding steamed milk or foam and a syrup or two to an espresso creates a rainbow of delicious concoctions!

    While some prefer the super dark traditional Italian espresso roasts, there's actually a wide range of coffees that are great for this brew method. Round, simple blends can make a great espresso, but so can super light, tea like single origins. To get the very most out of the brew method, we recommend juicy, berry notes and classic chocolate flavors. This is the best way to start with this brew method!

    There are plenty of other interesting brew methods we will approach in future articles, but these four should get you started!

  • Video Roundup: 2/14/20

    Hello coffee fans!

    It's time for another video roundup at Seattle Coffee Gear!

    We'll start with a look at some entry level "prosumer" machines with Allie!

    Next up, it's a look at the Rancilio Specialty RS1 with John.

    Gail gave us some thoughts on the Baratza Forte BG vs. the Eureka Mignon:

    And finally, Allie and I did a tasting of our Roast of the Month for February, Methodical's Ethiopia Nano Challa!

    That's all for this week! We'll be back soon with more video content. Have a great weekend!

  • Introducing AKA Coffee!

    It's time again for another roaster to join our incredible lineup!

    Today we're welcoming AKA coffee to the SCG roaster family. AKA Coffee was founded as Supersonic Coffee in Berkeley, CA back in 2013. After developing some delicious roasts, they ultimately rebranded to AKA Coffee due to copyright issues associated with opening cafes and retail locations. The result is a fun new name that pays homage to the change in branding and a fresh start in Oakland, CA!

    AKA has a commitment to offering quality coffee that's also accessible and approachable. We love this mentality and are excited to begin offering their coffee. Early this year they'll also be opening a retail location at the Castro Valley Marketplace. If you're in the East Bay you should be sure to check it out! Let's take a look at the roasts.

    FTW

    FTW is AKA's signature blend. This is a simple coffee that features notes of caramel and nuts. We find that this is a really approachable blend that works in a variety of brew methods. It's also easy to brew, providing a clean, satisfying cup even if you grind a little too fine or short. FTW is a great standby, perfect to keep around as an every day roast for your superauto or drip brewer!

    Kindred

    Kindred is a blend of beans from Latin America that spice and dried fruit notes. These simple notes are very accurate and really come through loud and clear in a pour over. We really enjoy this roast and think it displays some strong complexity and depth. Definitely a good one to try if you're an experienced specialty coffee drinker and a fun one to try a variety of ways once you've tried it in a pour over!

    Ethiopia Adame Garbota

    The first single origin that we've brought on from AKA, Adame Garbota is a tasty Ethiopian with classic notes from the region. Green apple and blackberry are the flavors AKA describes, and we definitely get the rich berry and softer fruit notes they're going for. A great pour over coffee and example of how this roaster tackles single origins!

    That's all we have for now, but keep an eye out for more single origins and blends from AKA Coffee! We're sure you'll enjoy their simple approachability as much as we do and are looking forward to our next cup as well!

     

     

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