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The pages in this section are devoted to more advanced techniques to help you go from great espresso to perfection ... well, as close as possible anyway! In addition to describing the features and operation of the Portaspresso Specialty Coffee System, the various types of grinders and espresso equipment will also be discussed. It is my intention to help as many people as possible to improve their coffee knowledge and espresso techniques, because the more you know, the more you will appreciate the Portaspresso System.
Firstly, I would like to state that all that follows is the result of my personal experimentation and interpretation, and I am open to all feedback and suggestions. Secondly, I would like to acknowledge that not everyone is at the same place in their coffee journey, and their destinations are not always the same. My destination is perfect espresso, and the information and techniques described in these pages specifically focus on espresso coffee.
Fresh Roasted Coffee
The first step to perfection is quality fresh roasted coffee beans. Unless you are a skilled roaster, it is best to source your coffee beans from a specialty coffee roaster. Most roasters do a very good job, but it really comes down to personal preference. My advice is to experiment with as many different roasters and blends as possible, and revisit earlier roasters as your techniques improve and experience grows.
The way your coffee is transported and stored has a dramatic effect on espresso quality. It is essential to avoid moisture, heat and light as these will cause fresh roasted coffee to deteriorate rapidly. Minimise the time between purchasing your coffee and storing it in a cool, dark and dry place. Unless you live in a cool, dark and dry place, store your coffee for immediate use in a frost free refrigerator in its original bag. The bag should have a one-way valve to release CO2. If the bag is not resealable, carefully cut the corner, fold the corner tightly after use and seal as best you can with a clip. If you have more than one bag, store all that is not currently being used in a frost free freezer until required.
Unless you live in a cool, dark and dry place, do not store your coffee in the cupboard. Doing so will quickly transform your quality coffee into something resembling what you buy from your local supermarket.
The next step to perfection is grinding your coffee to the correct size with a quality grinder. There are three basic grinder types: blade, flat disc and conical burr.
Blade grinders are cheap nasty things that smash your coffee into something that resembles espresso ground coffee. The basic problem with these is that they smash rather than cut, resulting in uneven particle size and a lot of fines (fine coffee dust). Even when you measure the coffee and use a timer, it is still difficult to get the grind right. Even when you do get it right, extraction is limited due to the quantity of larger particles, and you can taste the fines that escape through the filter. If you have a choice, it is best to avoid these grinders.
Flat disc grinders are significantly better than the blade type, but are significantly more expensive. For the most part, they do quite a good job, and most people would be happy with a quality grinder of this type. However, their cutting action is relatively fast, which generates heat and consequently affects the quality of the ground coffee. The cutting area is generally narrow, which causes the coffee to smash together more than desirable. This causes fines, but at a much lower level than blade grinders. Most people will not pick fault in a quality flat disc grinder, and if you are unable to buy a better type, my advice is to never try a quality conical burr grinder. Once you do, you will want one!
Conical burr grinders currently offer the best grinding action. The cutting action is relatively slower than flat disc grinders, which results in less heat. They also have a larger cutting area, and the cutting action is more shear than other grinder types. The resulting grind is generally consistent with minimal fines. If it is within your budget, a quality conical burr grinder is a great investment. You will taste the difference.
The Rosco Hand Grinder uses a conical cutter, has stepless adjustment, has a thrust ball bearing, and is constructed with fine tolerances. This means that the grind quality is as good as any conical grinder. It is very efficient, and as a hand grinder, it is very fast. It is capable of grinding 20 grams of coffee in 30 seconds, which is more than tolerable for personal use.
Whichever grinder you choose, you want to ensure that all old coffee grounds are removed before use. Coffee deteriorates within minutes of being ground, so removing old grounds is essential for quality. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to remove old grounds from most grinders. You can grind a small amount to flush out the old coffee before grinding into your filter head, but this is quite wasteful and does not do a thorough job. Also, if you have a choice, do not buy a grinder with a doser for home use. A doser just adds to the places where old coffee can accumulate. This is another advantage of the Rosco. The Rosco can be used for single shot loading, which is when the grinder is filled with just enough beans for a single shot. Other than brushing away excess coffee from beneath the cutter, there is nowhere for old coffee to accumulate. Single shot loading is also great for using different coffee blends or origins without the need to empty a hopper.
Once you have a quality grinder to grind your carefully selected fresh roasted coffee, the next step to perfect espresso is the espresso machine.
There is no distinctive line separating domestic and commercial machines, but rather a gradual improvement in quality and design features. In general though, domestic machines do not have a boiler whereas commercial and semi-commercials do.
Even though domestic machines vary significantly in price, their fundamental extraction designs are not substantially different. The methods through which they control temperature do not function well enough for high quality espresso, and their pump performance is generally much lower than commercials. Nevertheless, you can make quite a good coffee with even a cheap domestic machine if you have a good grinder and know what you are doing. In fact, a skilled person can make a better coffee with a cheap manual machine than an expensive automatic because the operator has more control with a manual machine. Domestic machines certainly have their place, but if you are seeking perfection, you need to look further.
Those who want quality coffee at home generally end up with a semi-commercial machine. Having a boiler enables much higher control over temperature, and they normally have a good quality pump. The main difference between semi-commercials and full commercial machines is capacity. Full commercials have larger boilers and pumps to cope with higher use, and are fitted with multiple group heads. Higher end machines have more control over variables such as temperature, pressure and profiling, but their fundamentals are not much different to semi-commercials. The only thing to say about these machines is CLEAN THEM ! And even though the group heads often come with two outlet spouts, do not extract more than one shot at a time per group head. Regardless of its distribution, you can only pump so much water through coffee before it starts to taste like razer blades! A volume has not been specified because it depends on a number of variables, one being personal preference. The best thing is to experiment with different volumes to find out what works for you.