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Advice for my aspiring friends

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  • Advice for my aspiring friends

    The fourth time I was asked seriously by friends to advise on what machine they should buy, I promised to write something down for them. Whilst Im a coffee guru in the civilian world, I clearly am not here, so your advice/corrections would be most welcome. Its not meant to be definitive, just to give them pointers. Also so I dont have to run through the beans/grinder spiel in full every time.

    PART 1

    Disclaimer: Before taking any advice here, remember that I am not the wise sage, I’m just more obsessed, and research can lead to your own enlightenment. I have owned only two machines and one grinder, so machine recommendations generally come from reviews I have read.

    In order of importance to the coffee, we have:
    1. Beans
    2. Grinder
    3. Technique (i.e. you)
    4. Coffee machine

    So just buying a nice machine is wasting money. (Incidentally, there is the odd decent second hand top end machine out there from people who’ve done just that and sold it, disillusioned.)

    Beans must be good quality and fresh. This means buying them locally from a roaster, roasted within the past 14 days. If it isn’t stamped with a roast date, then be suspicious. And definitely not from a supermarket. The objective here is to be on first name terms with the roaster (really).

    If you live in Adelaide, I would recommend Simply Coffee in Kent Town and Rio in Stepney. I happen to like east African single origin beans. You’ll find your own favourite.

    A roasted coffee bean will go stale in about 3 weeks. Ground coffee goes stale in about 8 minutes. You must buy whole beans. (Incidentally, if your local barista is not grinding to order, then you need to find another café.) Buy in small batches that will last you a week.

    Roasted coffee beans are very hydroscopic, or whatever the word is for attracting moisture. Moisture makes coffee beans go stale. So does oxygen to a lesser degree. Keep them in a cool, dark, sealed place. Avoid the fridge unless you like fridgy, stale coffee. Freezing sealed bags is acceptable if you have too much coffee in stock, so long as you let it warm up before breaking the seal to avoid condensation on the beans. Do not return to the freezer once open.

    A grinder is important because coffee grinds have to be the same size. The typical dust-plus-rocks from a whirly blade spice grinder produce a poor result because the small particles are over extracted, producing bitter tastes, and the large particles are under extracted and produce sour tastes. A reproducible coffee grind size will also be essential for espresso machines.

    This means that you need a good quality burr grinder.

    Being the more important of the two, the grinder should be at least matched with your machine, and ideally be superior to allow for the inevitable machine upgrade. I’ve listed out possible grinder against the matched espresso machines below.

    The cheapest acceptable grinder will cost A$200 (e.g. Sunbeam EM0480, Nemox Lux, Gaggia), with more expensive grinders costing A$700 (e.g. Rancilio Rocky, Mazzer Mini).

    If you make both espresso and plunger coffee then you will need a grinder that can readily change to and from fine to coarse grinds. At the highest end you’ll be adjusting grind with such precision that you’ll want a stepless (continuously variable) grinder. I’ve not found that necessary with my Isomac Gran Macinino (A$350) because the steps are close enough.

    The contact time between water and coffee, and the temperature of the water, are crucial. Over extracted coffee and high temperature water produce bitter or burnt flavours. Under extracted and low temperatures produce sour weak flavours.

    You’ll need to set your equipment up to produce something like 30ml in 30 seconds for a single, which is a ‘golden rule, subject to variation’. Packing the grinds is important. I have a A$70 tamper imported from Canada and machined to a tenth of a millimetre tolerance not because I’m a card carrying coffee snob (I am, but that’s incidental), but because pressurised water follows the path of least resistance. A poorly packed basket will produce ‘channelling’ of water down the side of the coffee, over extracting the edges and under extracting the middle. Bitter, sour, weak coffee.

    This is the great part of espresso coffee. No matter how good you are, there is always a better coffee to make.

    Great coffee can be made with good beans, a good grinder, a kettle and a plunger. The following assumes that you want to make espresso coffee. The machine you buy will depend on your budget, the type of coffee you drink, and the ease of making.

    Avoid super-auto all-in-one grind-and-make machines. Too expensive, mediocre coffee. Avoid the cheapest steam (no pump) machines that drive overheated water through the coffee.

    Ignore pump pressure stats; any cheap vibe pump can deliver the necessary. The important aspects are temperature stability for the coffee and steam capability for the milk.

    There are three basic types: thermobloc, boiler and heat exchanger.

  • #2
    Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

    PART 2

    Simple to use, relatively cheap. Cold water is pumped through a heating element located just above the coffee. There are some good inexpensive machines around these days.

    The downside of the thermobloc approach is poor temperature stability; the initial water is overheated on the element, then the flow of water cools the heating element so that the last water through the coffee is too cool.

    Many machines assume that you’ll not have a decent grinder and artificially create crema through backpressure with a single small hole in the basket or group handle. This is no good, and you’ll need a machine either with a proper group handle/basket or where this can be changed for a proper one.

    Single thermobloc machines have trouble quickly switching between making the coffee at a cooler temperature (92°C) and steam for the milk (100°C). This can mean hanging around waiting for it to heat up or cool down. This is particularly obvious with multiple coffees with milks, so those dinner party coffees could take a while.

    Thermobloc machine recommendation:
    Breville Café Roma RRP A$210. (Basket will need changing.)
    Appropriate grinder: Sunbeam EM0480 A$200 or Nemox Lux A$250

    A dual thermobloc machine has a one each for the coffee water and steam, improving the temperature stability and reducing the hanging around time. The Sunbeam Café Series EM6190 RRP A$700 makes good coffee but reliability issues have been reported.
    Appropriate grinder: Sunbeam EM0480 $200 or Nemox Lux A$250

    Single boiler.
    EM6190 aside, this is the next step up. Heats the water in a boiler, with greater heat mass and better temperature stability. Needs more practice than a thermobloc, as it is less simple to get the water at the right temperature through the coffee. However, once you get it, the quality of the coffee can be noticeably better.

    Still has to cope with different temperatures for coffee and steam, so there is still waiting around for several back-to-back coffees.

    Cheaper single boiler recommendations:
    Breville Ikon A$350
    Gaggia Espresso A$400
    Appropriate grinder: Sunbeam EM0480 A$200 or Nemox Lux A$250

    Expensive single boiler recommendation:
    Rancilio Silvia A$800. The Silvia has been famous (in geek circles) for several years as the cheapest ‘real’ coffee machine. Excellent espresso is possible, but the temperature surfing required means that there’s some learning to be done.
    Appropriate grinder: Rancilio Rocky A$700.

    Heat exchanger.
    Cold water from a reservoir is heated in a heat exchanger in the boiler then goes through the coffee. Steam comes off the top of the boiler. This is the home version of the ones used by the cafés.

    More forgiving and therefore easier to use than a single boiler, yet for the expert tweaking pressures and temperatures is possible. Excellent espresso, limitless steam and a reasonable amount of hot water for a long black, easy to do multiple coffees as pour and milk steaming can be done at the same time.

    Downside is expense. They range from expensive to extremely expensive.

    HX recommendations. There are a lot of really good options in this range, so this is just a selection.
    Expobar Leva A$1500
    Vibiemme Domobar A$2400
    Isomac Modiale $2600
    ECM Giotto A$2600
    ECM Veneziano A$4500

    Appropriate grinder: Mazzer Mini ($700)

    I have an Isomac Gran Macinino grinder (A$370) with an Expobar Leva (A$1500), which I am very happy with.

    There are also dual boiler machines, giving more temperature control, but if you are looking at these then you probably don’t need my advice.


    Budget. In general, double your original budget should suffice.

    What sort of coffee do you like? The occasional espresso or frequent back-to-back milk based drinks? Steaming capability and recovery time will be important.

    Reviews. These days the internet is obviously the source of all knowledge. Good sites for research are in Australia, and for general stuff, mainly from the US but also more widely. Consumer reviews of equipment are at There will be equivalents in the UK and other places.

    Try it at the shop. Coffee roasting retailers will usually have floor models, though obviously Myers/David Jones will not. Be careful as even reputable roaster/dealers send out knowledge-free sales staff when they’re busy.

    Look and feel. To generalise, it’s like a Harley Davidson; the heavier and shinier the better. Particularly the group handle, which should be large (57mm or so diameter basket) and heavy. Also, footprint on the kitchen work bench.


    • #3
      Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

      All good þ[ch945][ch8467][ch273][ch915][ch1209][ch1179]

      You might need to update some prices....Many of them are well out of date....



      • #4
        Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

        Cheers 2mcm. Im stuck in a time warp on the prices from when I was last in the market. (Next time I am, itll be like when I had to buy a suit the other week, hyperventilating in the shop.)


        • #5
          Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

          Ground coffee goes stale in about 3 minutes.

          I thought a Rocky was closer to $400.

          The Sunbeam model number is EM6910.

          Dont forget the Macap grinder as well as the MM.

          (Quite a good summary for your friends)


          • #6
            Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

            Another suggestion is to really drink heaps of coffee first from recommended cafes, talk to the barista and try to really understand what a great cup of coffee is in the first place, otherwise you will never be able to reproduce it regardless of the big 4 items as mentioned in you Q.

            þ[ch945][ch8467][ch273][ch915][ch1209][ch1179] has given a very accurate and thorough review. I totally agree with all but

            My opinion when your ready to buy, purchase grinder and machine together and spend as much as you can.

            The more you spend the the "easier" it is to make a great coffee. Different machines do not make a difference. For example Yirgacheffe (one of the best beans in the world!) tastes best through a $20 plunger or $100 Syphen.

            I have extracted really great shots from all the consumer models, but as I say, some are "easier" than others. Thats the only difference I have found, none to do with taste.

            Perhaps another way to look at it is how many coffees will you be making at a time(some machines can handle only a few at a time), how often will you use it?(expenditure) and does a self made coffee really taste as good as a coffee made by a pro while you relax and chat with your friends while you are all catered on?

            As for coffee, freshness is the key! Different beans and roasts peak at different times. Look for roast dates not expiry dates!

            As for "technique/you" you will never stop learning once you start! Red pill or Blue pill?


            • #7
              Re: Advice for my aspiring friends

              Thank you for your comments 2mcm, Tg and MP, which I am including in a final version.

              MP, I agree with the benefits of talking with the barista. But does a self made coffee taste as good as a coffee made by a pro? It sure does; in fact it tastes so much better that it is difficult to enjoy a coffee out! Obviously there are exceptions*, but since Ive got 5 minutes to make the one or two coffees, its difficult for the pro to compete, and they mostly dont.

              * I think that Ive got about 37 more posts to make before I can say where