Educational

  • The Importance of Timing and Weighing Your Shots

    Pulling the perfect shot of espresso is a learning experience. It's not easy to go from beginner to proficient at such a delicate process. We've talked in the past more generally about ways to improve your espresso game. Today we wanted to take a look at timing and weighing shots, two key components of brewing great espresso!

    Shot Weight

    Shot weight is important because, as with drip coffee, ratio is key. You need the right amount of water to pass through just the right amount of ground coffee. This ensures that the chemical process of coffee and water molecules bonding takes place. For drip coffee, using a 1:16 ratio of coffee to water is pretty standard. Due to espresso's more concentrated, syrupy nature and the pressure from brewing, 1:2 coffee to water is a good starting point. Using a scale to weigh your shot as it pulls is key here! While you can also use a shot pitcher that measures volume, a scale gives you more freedom. With it, you can brew to exact ratios and try different amounts of coffee and water.

    The important thing here is making sure your scale can accommodate you portafilter for weighing grounds AND be small enough to fit under the brewhead. Examples like the Acaia Lunar are small enough to fit under brew spouts and can be combined with plates to fit portafilters.

    Shot Timing

    In order to manage the perfect extraction, the amount of time a shot takes to pull is very important. Most of the time you'll be aiming for your shot to pull in 20-30 seconds. For more adventurous recipes you might use different timings. If your shot pulls very fast it could mean that you need a finer grind or a tighter tamp. Too long and you may need the opposite. In either case, without timing your shots you'll never know for sure.

    Poorly extracted shots can taste sour or bitter, just generally bad. If the timing is good and you use the right volume of coffee and water, you know that it's a problem with the bean! Many scales offer shot timers, but to truly measure down to the millisecond, try to find a brewer with one built in. Timers on machines will usually start automatically when the shot begins to pull. This ensures everything is synced up exactly. Check out this year's the Rocket Giotto for a great machine with built in timer.

    We hope this article drives home the important of adding a timer and scale to your espresso setup!

  • Choosing a Drip Brewer

    Are you ready to upgrade from your cheaper drip brewer into something a little more powerful? Maybe you had coffee out of a Precision Brewer or a Technivorm and are ready to upgrade your drip game? At first, choosing a drip brewer can seem daunting. Why doesn't a Technivorm have a screen? Do I have to program a Bonavita? Why are they so expensive? All of these are questions you might ask when first considering a new drip brewer, and we've got you covered!

    Why Bother?

    The first question that's important to answer is "why even pay more than $50 for a drip brewer?" And it's one of the easier ones to answer. To do so, lets break down what a drip brewer does. At its core, a drip coffee brewer heats water and then showers a basket of ground coffee with that water. From there, water drips into a carafe or mug. So what's the big idea with high quality brewers?

    The biggest thing is consistency. Ideal brewing conditions for coffee involve water heated to right around 200 degrees Fahrenheit (this can change with certain coffees, but is a good baseline). That means you need a brewer that can heat water to this temperature as it passes through a heating element and into the ground coffee. Ideally, this temperature will be maintained until the moment it hits the grounds. This creates the absolute best extraction.

    Cheaper brewers have a hard time heating water to precise temperatures, and an even harder time maintaining those temperatures through the brewing process. This is the absolute number one reason to switch off of a cheaper brewer. Cheap brewers can also fail to saturate all of the grounds with their spray heads, resulting in coffee that isn't properly extracted.

    So How Do I Choose?

    Given the above, the first criteria to look for is consistent water dispersal and heating. Options like a Motif or Bonavita brewer over this sort of performance without any bells and whistles. They make great brewers for someone who wants a very simple option with a very "standard" look.

    For something with a more unique appearance, check out Technivorm. These brewers also offer incredibly consistent performance, and with the right care, can last decades.

    These machines also often perform a "pre-infusion." This means that a small amount of water is used to wet the grounds and bloom the coffee. This helps release aroma and acids that can cause bitterness without this blooming period.

    If all you are looking for is a consistent cup of drip coffee, the above will help. Getting a brewer that is up for that temperature consistency and even water spray will go a long way in producing your perfect cup in the morning.

    With that said though, there's always the extra mile.

    Bells, Whistles, Screens, and Settings

    For those that want to tweak the brewing process, you'll want more than a simple one button brewer. Trying different flavor profiles by modifying brew temperature is possible with more technical machines. You might also be able to do things like brew specifically for iced coffee or control pre-infusion time. With this much control over the brewing process, you'll be able to experiment and find the perfect recipe for each roast you take home.

    While it's not the only brewer out there with advanced features like this, the Breville Precision Brewer is a great example of this type of drip brewer. It's also easy to use, and offers a quick, one touch brewing cycle that resembles the machines discussed above.

    With all of that down, all that's left to decide on is carafe! Most brewers come with the option of a glass carafe with a warming plate, or a thermal carafe that keeps the coffee warm without the plate. This is all down to personal preference. Leaving coffee on a warming plate can scorch it if left too long, but some coffee drinkers can taste a difference with a stainless carafe. Let your taste buds be the judge and try coffee from each if you can!

    We hope this helps you on your quest to find the perfect drip brewer for your kitchen!

  • Cleaning Your Grinder For Standalones and Superautos

    Cleaning a standalone grinder is the sort of task that seems like it should be pretty simple, because it's a simple machine, right? Turns out, there's a load of good reasons as to why you should clean your grinder. While methods of doing it vary in complexity, it doesn't hurt to have a cheat sheet handy. So let's dive in!

    Why Clean Your Grinder?

    It may seem like there's not much to clean on a grinder, as they are, in theory, simple devices. The fact is, coffee oil builds up on grinders too, and can gum up the burrs and motors of yours. This can, most importantly, adversely affect taste. The flavor of your coffee comes through best when nothing gets between it and your brewing process. As such, oil buildup that comes out in your grounds can lead to a stale or altered flavor. Not the best for your carefully crafted pourover or espresso! On top of that, grinders can seize if enough oil builds up on them. This can lead to expensive repairs and a lack of coffee! So what's the answer?

    Cleaning a Standalone Grinder:

    Standalone grinders range in difficulty to clean. The easiest way to make sure they are running in top shape is to run some Grindz through the grinder on a regular basis. Exactly how regular is going to depend largely on use. If you use your grinder daily, cleaning with Grindz every couple of months is a good start.

    For deeper cleaning, many grinders are easily disassembled. From there you can get in and scrub the burrs and motor components as needed to get out any oil residue. This is the kind of cleaning you might want to do annually, depending on use. It should be noted that some grinders are very difficult to take apart, and doing so could void your warranty. Always check that warranty before disassembly, and use a guide to help you if possible.

    Cleaning a Superauto Grinder:

    For years the standing rule for superautos is to avoid oily beans because you simply can't clean them. While we'd still recommend sticking to drier beans, we can finally recommend a cleaning product for your superauto's grinder! Supergrindz is an exciting new cleaner from Urnex that finally allows you to clean out your superauto grinder! This cleaner does a great job and with monthly usage can help extend the life of your superauto. It's easy to use, simply drop remove any beans from the hopper, brew a couple of large cups of coffee, add the directed amount into the grinder and brew some more, then add coffee and grind until you are no longer getting yellow residue in the waste bin. The result is a squeaky clean, and happy, superauto grinder.

     

  • 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!

  • Coffee Culture: United Kingdom

    Hello coffee fans!

    Today we're taking a look into the culture of coffee in the United Kingdom! Join us for a look at what it's like to have a cup of joe across the pond!

     

    Coffee In the UK

    The British coffee industry has boomed over the last ten years, increasing cups per day by 25 million! This and other facts about the UK's coffee craze came out in a 2018 study from the British Coffee Association. It found that Brits consume a whopping 95 million cups of coffee per day. This is surprising for us on the American side of the Atlantic. Here, we tend to view the UK as a tea drinking nation, and historically this is true. It is only in recent decades that the British has made the switch to coffee. Also interesting is where they're drinking our favorite caffeinated beverage.

    The study found that well over half of coffee in the UK is consumed at home. This clashes with the notion that most coffee drinkers are doing it in shops and restaurants. In fact, a mere 10% of coffee was found to be drank in cafes. By contrast, Reuters found that American drink as much as 36% of their coffee on the go or in coffee shops. Quite the difference!

    The UK has even seen an explosion of third wave roasters. While Americans may consider this country to be the epicenter of the specialty roasting movement, some Brits would argue otherwise. Despite the figures above, café culture is also booming in the island nation. Coffee drinkers there love espresso, with lattés, cappuccinos, and au laits being common orders at the local coffee shop.

    All of this is in opposition to the history of coffee in the UK. Until recently, most coffee drinkers preferred instant coffee for its simplicity. The shift to third wave roasting is often attributed to millennials seeing coffee as upper class and desirable. Either way, Britain continues to develop into a coffee loving nation!

  • 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.

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