Staccato Espresso: Leveling Up Espresso

Robert McKeon Aloe
May 3, 2019 · 8 min read

Welcome. May I present Staccato Espresso or layered espresso. Here is the story and the data behind how I’ve used coffee sifting to take espresso to a new level (of ridiculousness).

I love my espresso, and I had thought after much improvement in 2018, I had reached the pinnacle of espresso. I started scoring my shots at the beginning of 2019, and I started pulling espresso from 6 different manual machines on a regular basis. This has had a great effect on me being able to understand the espresso process beyond my current knowledge.

Regular Machines:

  1. Kim Express
  2. La Peppina
  3. Enrico of Italy
  4. La Pavoni
  5. Kompresso
  6. Flair

I score my shots on a scale of 0 to 4 in seven categories and take an average. Then I stumbled upon something spectacular: layered espresso. I’ve had to expand my scale to 0 to 8, and I suspect there is a 10 out there, but I’m not sure what it looks like, so my scale is from 0 to whatever.

A sample of my dataset; scores are negative from 2 to -6 currently, but I correct my scale to be from 0 to 10 for this article (2 -> 0, -6 -> 8)

Have you ever had an espresso shot that makes you contemplate life in a way you never thought possible?

I had wanted to make this type of shot with a few different layers at different grind settings. I knew it would take some experimentation, so I put it off. Then I happened upon a used Kruve sifter, and I wanted to try it. This device would make experimentation faster and easier than multiple grind settings. Also, I mainly wanted to use it for its intended purpose: to remove the particles that were too fine or too coarse.

The Kruve Sifter

The Kruve sifter takes two screens in which you place your coffee grinds, and after a few minutes, you have three levels of sifted particles. Unfortunately, I only had the 400um and 800um screens which are best for pour-over coffee. They recommend 250um and 500um for espresso.

I ran some tests. First, I made a shot with just particles less than 400um. The shot was okay, but it lacked a sharpness and the bitterness. After making a shot that was mostly above 400um, I realized part of the sharpness or bite of a shot came from the coarser grinds. I then decided, what if you put the finer grinds on the bottom with coarser on top in the same proportions as in the original grind. That’s when the magic happened.

The taste was unbelievable. The shot was balanced, and the amount of soluble extracts went up. I decided to continue the experiments, and I bought a 200um sieve and a 500um sieve. I did some tests on my grinder to understand the grind particle size distribution, and I made a four layered shot. It was amazing, even better than two!

Layered Shots

Four layered shots were impractical, but three layered shots were not. Switching sieves is timely and requires a lot more grinds to do the four levels (effectively five while sifting, but you don’t use the top one). So I aim to do three layers using two sieves: 400um and 500um. This produces three distinct levels:

  1. Fine : particles < 400um
  2. Middle: 400um < particles < 500um
  3. Coarse : particles > 500um

The fine particles give the thick, syrup texture along with the sweet notes. I’m still unclear what the middle brings to the table, probably balance. The coarse particles bring the strength, the bitter, the sharp bite. Balancing these is much like tuning an equalizer on a stereo to get the best sound from the same music. It allows for dialing in a shot without adjusting the grind, merely the sifting ratio. The grinds are all from the same beans, which makes this so interesting.

I started with fine, middle, coarse in that order from bottom to top of the filter. After each layer, I distribute using a toothpick and tamp. The shot was delicious, but I was curious if there was a better way.

There seems to be some channeling, but the shot was amazing.

The Real Staccato Shot

After experimenting with every combination for the sake of science, I found the best arrangement and the best ratio. The best arrangement was Fine-Coarse-Middle as the Bottom-Middle-Top layers. The best ratio for those layers in that order is 1–1–2, which typically comes to 4g Fine — 4g Coarse — 8g Middle.

Results

My best scores on all of my machines jumped by 2 at least. I went from 4 to 7 on the Kim Express, and for the other machines, I was able to hit a level and quality I never thought possible.

If I look at the score distributions for Regular Shots vs Staccato Shots, there is a clear improvement. While my scoring is subjective to my palate, that doesn’t mean I can’t detect a differential score and judge between two things and how they compare.

Tips and Tricks

Another thing to note is the actual sifting. This takes a few minutes. I typically try to put 50g into the sifter to give me a few shots worth. I save them in small plastic bottles that are air tight (I haven’t had much of an issue with grounds going stale due to home roasting).

This is my travel kit. I know, it’s too much, but I want the best every time. Kruve will compress to a single layer for easier travel.

Faster Sifting: I also have used a small spoon with a rubber head (a baby spoon) to move the grounds around for the 400um screen. This definitely speeds up the process because the screens can get jammed up. I definitely think there is a better sieve design possible. I have a few thoughts on how to sift more efficiently and at a higher volume.

Tamping each level and keeping it level is hard. The best would be to have three levelers preset, but for some machines like Flair, when I tamp the Fine layer, I hit part of the metal screen on the portafilter. Then the tamp can get stuck. Flair wasn’t designed with this type of shot in mind. I can make it work with care.

Extraction: the staccato espresso shot stresses a filter to the maximum. If you recall, I did a filter analysis a few months back, and I didn’t think much of those patterns in hole distribution. Well, these patterns show up when I pull my shots now. You have to be careful; you don’t stress your machine out. The Staccato shot forces a pre-infusion (due to the fine layer) on any machine, which can be too much for an automatic.

Staccato Ratio: I found the best for me using a data sheet to track my experience. I would also suggest making minor adjustments based on the beans:

  1. The Fine layer gives the syrupy, oil flavors plus some of the sweet.
  2. The Coarse layer gives the sharp bite and bitter flavors.
  3. The Middle layer gives the more sour flavors and the full bodiness.

You may also have to adjust shot timings as appropriate. Here are the best ratios I have found for my machines. Keep in mind I generally overpack my baskets and like strong, short shots with a 1:1 ratio (weight in to weight out):

Grinder: I currently use a Rok grinder and Lume grinder, and the Rok is a better grinder. However, because of sifting, I’m not sure that matters. I wonder if a better sifting machine came out, would the grinder matter as much? It will be interesting to see if my dreams come true.

Mixing Beans: I have yet to try using different beans for different layers, but it could give blending a whole new meaning.

I believe the true value of sifting coffee grounds is not to get rid of fine and coarse particles, but to reorder them. I also don’t believe the value to be limited to espresso. While I’m not a fan of other forms of coffee, I don’t doubt a similar coffee preparation could be found to improve quality in pour over, cold brew, and aeropress. I’m excited to see someone try it. With the Staccato Espresso method, I’m convinced even more that I can make good espresso from a crappy machine. I’ve also been able to get beyond what I had thought was the maximum potential for all of my espresso machines.

Good luck! Please, let me know how it goes. I hope this method, while time consuming, will ultimately level up your espresso. At the very least, it will give Kruve owners something to try. I also hope more people will become interested in sifting and build more efficient sifters.

If you like, follow me on Twitter and YouTube where I post videos espresso shots on different machines and espresso related stuff. You can also find me on LinkedIn

Further coffee readings of mine:

My coffee setup

Artisan coffee is overprice

The Tale of the Stolen Espresso Machine

Affordable Coffee Grinders: a Comparison

Espresso : Grouphead Temperature Analysis

Espresso filter analysis

Portable Espresso: A Guide

Kruve Sifter: An Analysis

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