For the love of espresso...

For the love of espresso
My new espresso machine, the Breville Dual Boiler - a thing of beauty.

Let me start this post right away by saying I am most definitely not a coffee snob. I like milky espresso drinks, flavored syrups, and if you can make art on the top of my cappuccino, all the better. But that doesn't mean I can't get some good old fashioned glee about my new toy.

Eight years ago, when my husband and I bought our first home, he surprised me with my first ever espresso machine. It was an espresso/coffeemaker combo and for two years, I loved it. I could make an entire pot of coffee or just pull one shot. I could steam milk and made passable lattes, but while it was nice to have at home, it did not replace a run to Starbucks, only made those runs less frequent.

My old combo machine, for 8 years a steady workhorse.

Then came the painful day that it broke. Some part of the boiler or whatnot malfunctioned and it wouldn't make espresso. It had to be sent away for repairs and I went without it for months, waiting, and drinking ever more Starbucks. When I got it back, I was not quite so enamored anymore. I still loved having the coffeepot for parties or family events like Thanksgiving, but I found the machine a pain. Because I hadn't paid enough attention to learn how to pull a shot properly or correctly steam milk, the passable lattes I had been making seemed like more trouble than they were worth, with all the cleaning time spent, I might as well just go to Starbucks.

Then last year, something changed. Somehow, on a lazy Saturday morning, I luckily pulled a great shot. Thick crema, great aroma, and I made a better than average latte. I was both surprised and confused. Why had I not been making these all along? And why couldn't I do it again?

As is my nature, I started researching. First thing I found was that I should be grinding my own beans. I was grinding beans at the grocery store and somehow never realized how much better the espresso tasted the day I bought the coffee than even a day (or sadly, many days) later. So I started paying attention. I bought a little burr grinder, I played with the grind size, checked and measured how much coffee I used, learned how to tamp properly, and started pulling shots and making lattes that easily rivaled anything I bought at Starbucks. I was so pleased with myself.

Of course, now that I was finally giving my machine a serious working, things started breaking. It was, by this point, 7 years old. The removable steam wand/frother started popping off, assaulting me with steam and hot water, the machine became testy about descaling, and it was so slow. Slow to warm up, slow to recover, slow to clean. But I had it and it worked, so I bought a replacement wand and plugged ahead.

Only recently (the past 2 months or so) have I started paying attention to beans. Again, for seven and a half years I just bought whatever beans at the grocery store. Always French roasts, often buying whatever looked good or was on sale. But I never paid attention. Never took the time to mindfully sit and smell the coffee. I just added my milk and sugar and went on my way. But one Saturday in late April, while standing in line at Starbucks because I had run out of beans at home, I starting reading all the different coffee bean descriptions on display and it got me thinking.

At first, I scoffed, thinking it must be all marketing -  who can taste the difference between Brazilian and Ethiopian beans? That's just ridiculous. But the moment the thought entered my mind, I chastised myself. I've been driven crazy by comments just like that made by people who know nothing about wine. Being now obsessed with building my wine palate, how could I make fun of a coffee palate and tasting notes? So I bought a bag of Starbucks beans and took them home. And while I was at it, I bought several brands, Peet's, 8 O'Clock, some beans from the Fresh Market, and started making lattes out of them. Funny enough, I liked them all. I tasted very little difference between them, especially since I doctor up my drinks with milk and usually vanilla syrup.

But I kept trying brands, kept tasting, and finally came to an aha moment. The first beans I fell in love with were born of an accident. I had heard of Intelligentsia brand coffee, so decided to taste test their espresso blend called Black Cat. I opened the bag and was shocked - these weren't a dark roast! They were a medium roast, and I loved them. So then I tried Counter Culture, retried Illy (regular roast, not French roast) and realized a) I liked the flavor of medium roasted beans a lot more than French Roast and b) I couldn't taste the difference in beans in the past primarily because of the roast. Once I changed roasts, the differences in the beans, even in the highly diluted form I drink them in, became much more obvious.

Now I was hooked. Obsessed with espresso. The research continued and my frustration with my little Krups was growing and growing.

Then two weeks ago, my machine faltered again. I cleaned, I descaled, I tried resuscitating it, even gave it a week off while I went to Ohio for vacation. But when I arrived home and tried making a latte, I knew it was over. The time had come. I needed a new machine.

Fortunately, I had been researching machines for a while. My dear husband, who never used our previous machine, wanted a Super Automatic, I was feeling ready to try hardcore Manual - let me pump the espresso myself! In the end, we compromised and bought the Breville Dual Boiler Espresso Machine pictured at the beginning of the post.

I brought it home today, unpacked it from its box, lovingly set it up, flushed it, read the manual and tried pulling a shot. I was extremely nervous. It's a well-reviewed, well-received machine, but you still hear horror stories. The last thing I wanted was buyers regret when I've been researching machines non-stop for weeks.

And so far, so good. I used one of our plain glasses today since I don't have any clear espresso cups and I wanted to see what I was pulling.

Here was attempt number 1.

Got decent crema, it seemed okay, a little acidic, but honestly, this is a much nicer machine than what I previously had, I wanted, no I needed, to pull a better shot to feel better about myself and my decision to upgrade.

Fortunately, from watching the shot, I had a pretty good idea what was wrong. Looking at the readout, I wasn't getting near the pressure I wanted and extraction time was way shorter than it should be too. My first thought was that my little burr grinder wasn't grinding finely or evenly enough. I sent out my dear hubby to buy me ground espresso and tried again.

This time, while the shot didn't look much different, it smelled and tasted better, richer, closer to what I was looking for. I then set myself to steaming/frothing milk, and, after making a bit of a mess, ended up making a nice little latte to give my husband as thanks for picking up the ground coffee.

Latte in a whiskey glass? Works for me.
You can't see it well in the photo, but behind that latte I had poured some ground beans onto plain paper to check out how my grinder compared to the commercially ground beans. Yep, mine were not only coarser, they were much more unevenly ground. A new grinder looks to be in my future soon.

The last shot I pulled of the night was the real winner though. Best looking, best tasting, and much better overall than I was ever able to pull in the past. I didn't use a clear cup, but I did take a photo of the top. I was so excited with the beautiful foam (thankfully no mess this time!) that I tried a little latte art. Turned into a blob, but was fun to try.

Frog, fish? I think I need practice if I want to attempt latte art for anyone but myself.
So, day one with the new machine and I've got two great drinks made, feeling better and better. And my last, sweet reward? Perfect pucks. If you are not an espresso maker, you probably won't care about pucks, but anyone who tries dosing, tamping and pulling shots themselves knows, the proof is in the pucks.

I broke them a little pulling them out of the knockbox, but the pucks are looking good.

I'm excited to make my morning latte tomorrow. Now that I've got a handle on the machine, I want to try to optimize the settings to make my ultimate drink. Maybe I'll even try it straight up. My goal - to kick the Starbucks habit for good.

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