If you frequent any one of the high end specialty coffee shops around the country these days you have observed the popular revival of manual, hands-on brewing. The movement has spawned books and blogs and even contests world-wide, but I think that the most beneficial thing to come out of it all is the consumer education that happens when the barista shows off their methodology while talking about their technique and the coffee that they are serving. This in turn creates not only customer loyalty, but also serves to inspire people to want to create great coffee at home themselves using the same techniques and equipment that their morning cup is created with. I find that the simple design of the manual brewing devices adds an intimate connection to my morning cup and the brew time and technique myself encourages a more direct and sensory connection to the process. Unfortunately the manufacturers of these devices had somehow seemed to forget one of the fundamental café experiences,–espresso.
There have been home “espresso” machines on the market for a long time now and the refinement of their capabilities and the advent of “pro-sumer” machines have put the ability to pull a great shot into the hands of the home barista but the price tags are large enough to keep most impassioned coffee lovers at bay. The closest thing I had found to a manual, inexpensive, “espresso” brewer was the Mokka pot, which produces something close to espresso if you pay close attention to the brew cycle, but makes it very easy to accidentally produce a bitter, over extracted, beverage. Then a friend of mine introduced me to the Presso Espresso Machine. I was hugely skeptical when I first started playing around with it, but being such a coffee geek I couldn’t help but experiment. I was pleasantly surprised at the results that I achieved: authentic espresso.
The Presso is a well-made machine requiring no electricity and only a small dent in your bank account. It retails somewhere in the neighborhood of $150.00. It is light-weight and small enough to throw in a backpack to go camping and is attractive enough to keep out on the kitchen counter. I found that it produced a good ristretto shot of espresso but there is a method that I found personally to be somewhat essential to follow. It works well for me to consistently get proper extractions however I would highly encourage experimentation.
What you’ll need is:
The first thing you’ll want to do is preheat the Presso. Fill up your kettle and bring some water to a boil. Since the Presso is made of metal it will act as a heat sink causing the water to drop from the desired extraction temperature which is around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperature extraction produces sour tastes in the final brew. With the arms of the machine in the down position pour boiling water into the water chamber all the way to the top, being careful not to scald yourself. The chamber has small openings on either side of the levers so having a kettle with a small spout works better because it allows for more control of the water stream.
Place a glass at least six ounces in size under the portafilter. Next pull the levers all the way up in order to draw the water into the chamber. Do this slowly to avoid spilling the hot water out of the top then press the hot water out of the chamber by pushing the levers down. You have now successfully preheated the Presso. This step also serves to clean the Presso from any residue from previous uses.
Sometime between setting the water to boil and actually pouring the boiling water into the chamber to preheat the Presso you will want to grind your coffee. I use about 18 grams for a 1.5 ounce shot of espresso. If you don’t have or want to use a scale the scoop that comes with the Presso holds about 9 grams of ground coffee when you level it.
It may take several attempts to find the grind that works best for you. Too fine a grind will stop the water from going through the bed of ground coffee, and forcing the arms down in the face of such resistance may damage the machine. Too coarse of a grind will result in the water gushing past and under extracting the coffee and create a thin, bitter brew. What you want is a steady, narrow, tapered stream of coffee that appears thick and viscous.
Now that your Presso has been preheated remove the black handled metal brew-basket called the portafilter from the body of the machine, wipe it out with a clean dry towel and scoop the coffee in. Eighteen grams of coffee seemed to produce the best results and will most likely end up creating a mound protruding from the top of the portafilter, but you can use a finger to evenly distribute the coffee in the basket. Sometimes a light tap on the side may help as well. Now take the scoop, which doubles as a tamper, and use the back of it to evenly compress the coffee down into the portafilter. The scoop works okay for this step but if you find yourself attached to your new brewer you may want to invest in a 49 millimeter metal tamper, available through web sites like http://amzn.to/p7EDbg.
Lock the packed portafilter back in the machine securely and place a receptacle for the brew underneath. Add the water just off boil into the chamber only this time filling it up to the top of the two cups that are just above the fill line for a double shot. Filling it to the line just below the two cups didn’t produce the beverage that satisfied my taste and I believe that a bit more water helps to create more pressure during extraction and provides a bit more heat stabilization.
Now slowly lift the arms all the way up then press them down until you start to get some coffee dripping into your cup. At this point bring the arms all the way back up, and press then down all the way until you gotten the desired 1.5 ounces of brewed coffee. During the extraction you will notice that the stream of coffee lightens color and this is a great indicator of when you have extracted all the good tastes and aromas from the bed of coffee. I always stop the extraction when the stream starts to turn pale by stopping the downwards pressure and pulling the levers back up again, because at this point you are just getting a bitter brew and I certainly don’t want any of that in my cup.
This is, of course, not the only way to use the Presso. Let your inner lab rat get the best of you and experiment with every variable you can think of to find a way to produce a great cup of coffee that fits your palate and style. I think that the ability to do this with manual brewing methods is what makes these methods such a great fit for the coffee geek within as well as for those that just need a really good single cup in the morning to get up and going.
Clean up the Presso is simple, just knock out the spent grounds from the portafilter into you garbage can and rinse the underside of the machine that come in contact with the coffee and water and you are set to pull your next shot. I think for the price and the results you would be hard pressed to find a better machine to produce your morning shot whether it is at home or in some beautifully scenic state park.
For more information and tips go to: http://presso.us/
Recently a Coffee Review reader sent in a request that we post information on our website about cortado, a relatively obscure coffee beverage in North American cafés. I searched the reference pages, thinking some mention of it had to be buried in the “espresso cuisine” section. But no, no cortado was to be found.
Most serious coffee drinking café denizens are able to precisely define the differences between espresso and macchiato or latte and cappuccino without the blink of an eye. Cortado, on the other hand, is one of those second tier beverages like café con panna or an affogato. Sure, professional baristas will know what these are, but average coffee consumers are bound to draw a blank. By second tier I simply mean that these beverages are not often found on the menus of cafés in North America and therefore less frequently ordered, though they certainly have the potential to be delicious.
In Spanish, as in Portuguese, the word cortado translates to cut. In the case of the coffee drink, cortado is simply a serving of espresso that is cut with an equal part, or slightly more, hot milk. Typically a cortado is served in a small glass with very little, if any, froth. The cortado is common in Spain and Portugal as well as various Latin American countries. Naturally, alongside the diaspora of these cultures, cortado can be found in restaurants and cafes throughout the world.
Over the past half century, in the United States at least, coffee cup sizes have steadily crept up from six to eight ounces, then twelve to sixteen, and now twenty and even a mind boggling, heart pounding thirty ounces! Consumer demand and a desire for higher margins seem to be the drivers behind this escalation. In this climate, weighing in at about four ounces, little room is left for the diminutive cortado in most mainstream cafes.
Of course not all cafes fall into lock step with mainstream coffee trends, and recently there has been a small but distinct backlash against the “bigger is better” movement. You may recall the momentary flurry of media attention that Chicago based Intelligentsia received a couple of years ago when it decided to stop serving coffee in twenty ounce cups. An increasing number of cafes are focusing on a more basic, perhaps more traditional, assortment of coffee sizes. With ristretto shots of espresso and five ounce traditional cappuccinos, the humble cortado could fit quite comfortably on the menus of these cafes. In fact, it is increasingly available in select cafes but often served with more froth on top than a traditional cortado and occasionally with different names such as Piccolo or Gibraltar. Even when not listed, it is usually possible to order cortado off the menu.
I was talking to Scott Callaghan the Australian barista champion just before he left for London for the World Barista Championship and I mentioned to him about “densation.” It’s a clumsy word but its similar to the principle that occurs with the sorting of green beans in a good dry-mill where you have a ‘densimetric’ table that is on an angle and when it vibrates the larger beans go to the top and the smaller beans and the chipped and broken parts go to the bottom.
The same thing happens when you are making an espresso coffee when you bang a loaded porta-filter on a bench or as World Barista Champion Paul Bassett calls it: “settling” the coffee. By banging the porta-filter on a bench or a bar it sorts out the particle sizes of the ground coffee slightly so you get the bigger particles at the top and the smaller particles at the bottom to some extent. The finer the grind the less this will occur as the particles are a little more viscous due to the increased surface area and exposed oils. In other words the finer particles that are impregnated with oils tend to stick together a little more rather than separating.
Basically what it enables you to do is create a better extraction.
It is somewhat similar to how some espresso machines maintain a constant temperature at the brew-head by not having a repeated identical interval where the thermostat comes on. Rather it comes on in ever-diminishing intervals to stop the brew head from getting too much momentum and over-heating. A constant series of regular intervals going on without paus actually increases the temperature. By reducing the intervals to say 0.9 seconds, 0.8 seconds 0.7 seconds etc it will actually maintain a more constant temperature and stop the temperature from climbing.
As water passes through dry coffee particles in the porta-filter, if there is an apparent even sorting of particles from top to bottom, the water will become a ‘saturated solution’ very quickly. And once you have a saturated solution the water can’t actually absorb anything more. That’s the nature of a saturated solution in scientific terms. (By the way: a saturated solution is actually the main principle by which Swiss Water Process produce their decaffeinated coffee.)
So what happens as a result of the ‘densation’ effect is that coffee grounds are densimetrically sorted, and the water will flow more easily through the top part of the coffee puck. And when the water comes to the bottom of the coffee it will tend to extract the optimum flavour from there as well as taking some from the coarser particles at the top. So ironically you actually get a more ‘even’ extraction out of the coffee grinds than you would out of an even particle size distribution.
One of the other factors that it enables you to do is to grind the coffee a little coarser and that again enables you to sort the particle sizes out better again and that is all, of course, intertwined in a complex way with the brewing temperature which permits a higher temperature which will of course bring out a different flavor profile. Altogether it creates a slightly sweeter and cleaner style of espresso coffee.
I should add that I got this idea from Carl Staub of Agtron who demonstrated it for me using a Swift grinder where he served me three espresso shots and he actually adjusted the grinder while it was actually grinding. So he created the densation effect by adjusting the grinder itself.
He gave me three shots and the taste difference was phenomenal. It was like having three completely different coffees. The first one was great much cleaner and more complex; the second one was just OK, and the third one was not nice at all. # 1 was coarse at the top and finer at the bottom; # 2 was even from top to bottom, as you would normally have it, and # 3 was fine at the top and coarser at the bottom.
I was working on developing a grinder that could repeat this in a commercial way with a lovely guy by the name of Mike Del Zoppo who is now no longer with us. He has gone to that espresso machine in the sky, so we never ended up making a grinder that could repeat this time after time but it is certainly a potential new challenge for manufacturers.
As with many subjects related to coffee you will find a variety of opinions regarding freshness within the coffee industry. Take for example the question of storage, for every roaster that recommends storing your coffee in the freezer or refrigerator there are many more that perish the thought. No matter the number of roasters that extol the virtues of hermetically sealed, nitrogen flushed, one way valve bags, there are few industry insiders that would argue it is better to purchase just of one week’s supply of freshly roasted coffee at a time, whole bean, of course, and grind just before brewing. The three, six, twelve or, yes, believe it or not, even eighteen month shelf life suggestions sometimes made by large roasting companies should be reserved for fallout shelters and hermits whose mountainous cave dwellings are not served by local mail delivery or Federal Express. (Although the latter would be better off purchasing green coffee, and roasting it over a camp fire.)
When the discussion switches from brewed coffee to espresso our collective agreement on freshness diverges further from this arguably common understanding. Anyone who has ever pulled a shot of espresso with coffee straight from the roaster, whether on a home or professional machine, knows that it produces less than satisfactory results. This begs the question, what is the ideal time to wait between roasting and brewing coffee as espresso? I posed this question to a group of professional baristas who just competed against one another in the 2010 United States Barista Championship. The baristas in question are: Southeast Regional Champion, representing Counter Culture Coffee, Lem Butler; Midwest Regional Champion Mike Marquard from Kaldi’s Coffee, and Pete Licata, the Western Regional Champion who currently plys his trade at the Honolulu Coffee Company.
Let’s look at the easy answer first. If we take the average, this group concludes that one should wait about a week, give or take a few days, before pulling shots. This conclusion is based on the experience of working with the same groups of coffees on a daily basis over the course of years, as well as the rigorous preparation regiments needed to compete seriously in regional and national barista competitions. Lem sums up the ideal range of time coffee is at its peak for espresso brewing as, “6-8 days sealed in its original packaging. Once the packaging is opened and the coffee is exposed to air, the storage time decreases drastically.” Pete adds, “…once a coffee hits its peak it has between 1 and 3 days before the flavors, body, and aroma start to fade.” So it appears that with coffee purchased for espresso, just as with coffee purchased to be brewed by other means, our lesson continues to be, buy fresh coffee frequently. Mike also finds “that anything much over 20 days off the roast really starts to flatten out – both visually and on the palate.”
Mike suggests that the average consumer wait “…at least 3 days from roast before brewing any coffee as espresso.” Although for barista competitions, he prefers to store his coffee in a sealed bag for, “9-11 days off the roast, and then one extra half-day open.” Pete states that, “The ideal resting time for espresso always seems to vary from coffee to coffee.” So, the more complicated answer, as Pete suggests, is to, “Pay attention to your coffee and you will find its best window.” To illustrate this point, when considering an assortment of espresso blends from Counter Culture Coffee, Lem finds that he prefers, “…Espresso Toscano rested at 8 days; espresso Rustico at 7 days; espresso Aficianado at 6 days and espresso La Forza at 6 to 7 days.” I told you this would get a little complicated.
What’s with all the variation, you may be asking. A clue can be found in Lem’s belief that it “depends on how long the coffee was roasted.” Pete notes that there are, “major variations in the amount of expelled gas based largely on the roasting technique.” Lem continues this thought by adding, “Longer roasts build more gas inside the coffee bean … Pressurized brewing and lots of gas will produce bubbles inside the crema of the espresso as it extracts. With so much CO2 trapped inside the coffee beans, it will take time for the gas to part leaving the beans to develop more of the sweetness and brightness.”
This context helps explain the variance in the ideal amount of time to wait before brewing coffee as espresso as compared to other brewing methods. Pete adds that “most roasters use a different roast profile for espresso versus standard coffee. Because of this the resting time may vary.”
To summarize, the best results when brewing espresso are based on experience and practice. You don’t need years of professional barista experience to figure out how long to wait before brewing espresso coffee. All you need to do is purchase high quality, fresh roasted coffee and try pulling shots every day over a period of time. After a while you will come to your own conclusions and preferences. And hopefully you will always be drinking espresso coffee at its peak of freshness.
I read an article today in an industry newsletter that Starbucks/Seattle’s Best Coffee is joining forces with Subway and Burger King to improve their coffee to try and compete with McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts success with espresso coffee. Espresso coffee has now contributed to an enormous profit turn-around in several of the world’s largest corporations. So we are obviously talking about very big business here.
Espresso coffee as some may know is my area of specialty! (Please see my book “The Espresso Quest” available from Amazon. Even though they say it is out of stock – it is still available. They do this to reduce their stock holdings!) Now that I have got that gratuitous promotion out of the way, let’s talk espresso.
Espresso of course in Italy means a single shot of concentrated espresso coffee: Black, short and not ‘long’ as in an Americano. So to clarify, I am actually talking about espresso-based drinks, i.e. an espresso-based menu if you like.
McDonalds who pioneered the world’s largest rollout of espresso coffee to an unsuspecting public, got the idea, wait for it, from my home ‘hood: Australia. McDonalds couldn’t sell their regular coffee in their stores down-under because Australian consumers preferred the milk-based/espresso-based coffee on offer from independents. So, a McDonalds franchisee trialed a new store and they called it: McCafe! And rest is history in the making.
But at the heart of the espresso-based menu that Aussie consumers liked was a milky coffee called a ‘flat-white’. My uncorroborated theory in regard to the origin of the flat-white is based on my experience in my own espresso bars down-under, the first of which I opened about 15 years ago.
I used to get customers, usually older ones who had been reared on instant coffee. (How ironical is this: instant coffee was introduced to Australian consumes as a result of USA GI’s who were stationed in Australia during World War II.) Anyway now that I have indulged in a tiny bit of my passion for history, back to the customers.
These customers would ask for a coffee with milk in it, really hot and with no froth/foam on top. “I just want it flat” they would stridently exclaim. If you left one speck of foam on top they would almost kill you! (Maybe they spent too much time with those GI’s!) I reckon they just wanted to replicate their old instant coffee, which comes out at just below boiling point after a dash of cold milk is added.
In any case this beverage had to be differentiated from the traditional Italian espresso-based menu which only included a cappuccino with up to an inch of foam on top and a latte with about half an inch on top. So it became known as a flat-white.
And so via McDonalds, a coffee culture that began with American GI’s down-under has now been re-engineered and re-exported back to America and beyond. In this same report I read, it also pointed out how Costa Coffee, who is very big in Europe, produced a very healthy profit result based around, you guessed it: the humble flat white!