The Espresso Symphony

The taste, the smell, the sudden surge of energy in your body. Waking up. Up until a couple of months ago, these were the main reasons why I drank coffee in the morning. It was just a way to turn the crank and start my engine, so that I can drive into the sunrise of another day.

Most days I simply got my initial dose of caffein in the office, as almost all Berlin startups come with a fancy espresso machine in the employee kitchen (currently we have a Rocket Evoluzione v2, which is a lovely, E61-based machine). This was not only the most convenient, but also the cheapest way to get a proper cup of coffee.

Supply of good (free) coffee left me pretty much dry at home. Not only I usually had just some stale, old beans at hand, but I also had to rely on my trusted Aeropress + hand grinder combo, which usually deterred me from brewing coffee at home, and forced me to visit one of the third-wave coffee shops in the neighborhood.

One-button magic

When Sandra and I moved together, her parents gifted us one of the super-automatic machines from DeLonghi which, with a press of a button, grinds, tamps, and pulls an espresso shot. It even had a steam wand for steaming milk. From effort perspective that was definitely a step up from hand-grinding 36g of beans, but it was definitely a step down taste-wise. The problem with those machines is that all the steps in the process are fully automated, and therefore it is not really possible to tweak and influence the results. And to be frank, for someone used to good coffee the results are not very impressive.

Since we just moved to a new apartment, however, the top items on our shopping list were things a little more substantial for our day-to-day lives, such as wardrobes, tables, or chairs. Good coffee had to wait. It was however clear that as soon as we move past the moving in stage, the macchina collecting dust in the kitchen, completely unused, will be replaced by something a little more exciting.

Pre-infusion

The opportunity presented itself a few months later when we were organizing a housewarming brunch for our friends. If I was ever looking for a reason to finally buy an espresso machine, that was the right time.

As always, with such decisions, I went into full research mode, trying to figure out which of the thousand models on the market is the right one for me. I spent a couple of weekends and evenings consuming primarily what other people wrote and said on the Internet, constantly changing my mind. I’ll spare you the details of the decision process — its enough that Sandra had to listen to me for ages — but for those of you in the same situation I can recommend the following sources:

  • Home Barista — huge community of coffee enthusiasts and home baristas. A ton of info from equipment reviews to brewing tips.
  • Coffee Geek — Same as above. Probably the biggest database of coffee equipment with reviews. Might be slightly outdated at times.
  • Seattle Coffee Gear — Shop with equipment which has a great series of video tests and reviews of mainly prosumer-level equipment.
  • KaffeeWiki — The same as above, just focused on gear common and available in Germany.

The macchina arrives

After long deliberation, I finally decided on the combo of Rancilio Silvia machine and Eureka Mignon grinder. Why these two?

The Silvia is somewhat of a legend among coffee enthusiasts, as it offers a lot of value for a fair price. It is a single-boiler system, which means it cannot make coffee and steam at the same time, but that’s fine if you’re not planning to make a lot of cups in a short time. It is also known to be a bit finicky (definitely not one-button magic) when it comes to the beans and the grind, but when tamed, it produces amazing results. It was quite an obvious choice, given the overwhelming amount of positive reviews and recommendations.

Among grinders the choice was much more difficult, as there are much smaller differences between different brands and models. A lot of people opt for Baratza Encore or Rancilio Rocky, but I decided to go with the little less legendary Eureka Mignon which looks a bit better, and it has a stepless grind adjustment, giving me a bit more precision when dialing in the grind.

My humble setup incl. an extra bottomless portafilter for those glamorous slow-mo shots

The First Shot

Before pulling the first shot, my expectations were, obviously, really high. After all, I just spent quite a lot of money on a couple of pipes, a boiler, a pump, and other bits in a brushed aluminum housing. You can imagine my disappointment when the first espresso I made was, ehem, disappointing. No crema, no fruity taste, just dark brown bitter water. I wished for a miracle that did not happen.

Having done my research however, I was ready for this scenario and warned Sandra that she’ll have to suffer through a couple of not so great coffees before I hit the spot. Remember when I mentioned that the Silvia is a bit finicky?

Who does not have custom-branded coffee cups these days, right…

At the end, it took me a couple of weeks (and about two bags of beans), but now I am able to consistently pull a nice espresso shot. Of course, it’s not a god shot yet, but I’m working on it! Most importantly, though, making coffee enriched my mornings with a little ritual, that gives me that extra kick to get out of the bed, turn on the machine to heat it up, and get everything ready to prepare the two cappuccinos for the way. Because, as with food, coffee always tastes better when you prepare it yourself.

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