Monday, November 13, 2006

   from Nick

How much do baristas need to know about home machines?

From the Toronto Star, "Espresso Yourself." November 11, 2006. (link via Dwelltime)

I've been thinking about this for a while, and would be interested to hear folks' opinions.

How much do baristas need to know about home espresso machines?

I'll confess: the only machines that I really know ANYTHING about and the Rancilio Silvia and the Expobar Brewtus (and Brewtus 2). I've played around on a few Silvias, and though I've never even seen a Brewtus in person, I understand it to be a solid machine, with PID, dual-boilers, and a modified E-61 group (which is antithetical to being a dedicated-boiler machine, but whatever). Even then, I admitted that I haven't seen one. I'm just assuming based on positive reports out there.

However, I get asked about home machine recommendations all the time, and I suspect I'm not the only one. I don't like the fact that though I can wax poetic about hybridized groups and 83mm conical burrs and 0.6mm flow restrictors and 6000-watt heating elements, I don't know the first thing about a LaPavoni lever home-machine, or a Solis SL-70, or a Rancilio Rocky.

I remember the first time that someone asked me to make coffee at their house (after dinner), knowing that I'm a "coffee-guy" and feeling insecure about making coffee in my presence. I remember asking, "Do you have a scale?" while suddenly realizing that because our brew-portions for drip coffee had been set and established long ago, I had little to no clue how much coffee I needed for this dude's Mr. Coffee. Some "professional" I turned out to be!

If we claim to want to be coffee sommeliers, aren't we then compelled to familiarize ourselves with the home coffee and espresso equipment?

Whether with CoffeeGeek or Home-Barista or EspressoParts or whoever... I'd like to see some sort of "Home Equipment 101 - What Every Professional Should Know" seminar someday. At SCAA, a Barista Guild Jam, or... perhaps at Portafilter 2007?


By the way, I know that folks are chompin' at the bits for some more info on the PF2007 event, including sponsorship info. We'll have a solid run-down of info within the next couple of weeks.


Anonymous Nick Brown said...


It has been said on numerous blogs and boards that the home barista is often the most inventive because they don't always have the best machines or training, but they do have plenty of time. I would love to have a jam or a seminar in which the home barista community could interact with the pro community on a level playing field. I'd love to be sure that when I got the ubiquitous 'how can I do that at home?' question that I would have a viable answer.

Also, to be fair, I think that Colter knows plenty about home espresso, he just bowed to superior knowledge on the subject (as opposed to Stuart, it would seem, who-- unless misquoted-- had the audacity to state his level of expertise as being superior to that required by a home machine. Tut!).

I will admit however that since temporarily leaving the pro barista scene, I've thought plenty about investing in a modest home setup and each time balked. Maybe I should reconsider.

11/13/2006 07:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Wrote this on CG, but now I should write it here too before anyone jumps over the quotes.

A good article came out in the Saturday Toronto Star about espresso. The reporter, Kim Honey did a lot of research and I'm quite impressed by it - without me even discussing it with her, she found my "any coffee, any grinder, any machine" article on CoffeeKid, for eg.

There were a couple of points though that I was misquoted on, and I can understand why - I was throwing Kim a LOT of information over the phone, talking fast and furious at times, and I was in the midst of fighting the flu, so my voice was way off. Two points though

- I don't test 100 machines a year. I told her "I've probably used and / or tested about 100 consumer machines over the years". I usually test, either for the website or for paid consultations, about 15 new espresso machines a year, but back in 2004 (a banner year!) I worked on about 25 commercial and consumer machines.

- The 500lbs of coffee quote. I'm not sure how this one came about. I think I made reference to it seems like I plow through 500 lbs of coffee a year, but as a sort of "aside". I do go through about 5-7lbs a week though, half of that from Intelligentsia, and the rest divided up by home roasted stuff, and coffee sent to me by other roasters. So it's probably more like 200-250 lbs of coffee per year. Also, a lot of that coffee is brewed in other methods outside of espresso. If I had to guess on how many shots I pull per year - hrm... probably an average of 10 to 15 a day, every day (eg some days only two or four - other days I may go through 2lbs of coffee pulling shots in a few hours). So that would be about 5,000 shot pulls a year. Maybe more.

And yes, outside of my own Frankensteined Linea, the Vibiemme Domobar Super is the fastest steaming machine I've ever tested for the home. That includes a lot of commercial machines too.

And lastly, new for PF - a lot of this home stuff is the reason behind the "any grinder, any coffee, any machine" theory. I've found that, as my understanding of the espresso process has grown (and still has a long way to go), I'm able to pull better and better shots on these machines - it's self serving - machines with serious limitations force you to in a way "think outside the box" and think through the process more, and as you think through the process more, you're able to get more out of the machine.

Case in point - I had a visitor by today, and at one point had them sit in Beata's office as I made a couple of shots. One from the latest Silvia. One from a tuned-to-the-blend LM PID Linea hybrid. They could not tell which was which. I could, but I made the shots too.

11/13/2006 09:43:00 PM  
Blogger Luca said...

Hi guys,

Luca's thought of the day: more than having a session of some description, it would be great for y'all to have a lineup of domestic machines and just fool around with them. I dunno ... is Terry Z onboard as a sponsor?

I say this because there is really no substitute for trying the machines for yourself and your experiences with one domestic machine mean a helluva lot more if you have actually used a bunch of different ones - and the same goes for commercial machines! Seriously, you find almost no home dudes that are willing to say that their equipment is crap, mainly because they have a point of view limited to their machine. So whilst they might get the best out of their machine, if it has some major shortcoming, they're going to have a warped perception. For example, the Brewtus/BII here has like 10 seconds preinfusion, which, to me, seems to squash all of the subtleties ... kinda makes me wonder what the point of the temp controller is, although I kinda never got the whole idea of that machine to start off with. I'm selling prosumer machines as part of my new job and I'm going to experiment with a larger diameter restrictor for slower preinfusion ... I suspect that some of the Australian vendors that have been too lazy or ignorant to actually get this problem fixed are not going to be happy if it works!


Anyhoo, my point is "try the machines yourself." Reading about these machines or having someone tell you about them will tell you nothing.



11/14/2006 05:06:00 AM  
Anonymous gee said...

i don't know that it's so much baristas need a vast knowledge of home machines, but rather an extensive knowledge of the principles involved in espresso machines. mechanics don't need to know everything about every single make and model of car, they know the principles behind what makes cars work, and troubleshoot accordingly. that's why i find the history of espresso machines (and coffee in general) so fascinating and essential. by knowing the steps that people have taken before and understanding them, we can gain a better understanding of the underlying principles of all coffee preparation.

11/14/2006 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger ben s. said...

to me, it's somewhat instructive that pros haven't expressed more heartburn than they have over the burgeoning home machine market. given, you know, some of the advancements coming from thence.

meanwhile, i'd agree with gee. it's not that one needs extensive machine knowledge. but it could be argued that the challenges increasingly embraced by pros are the sort that mean something to an elite aficionado group but not to the general consuming populace (i.e. the sorts of things that win competitions). this could be because they're already endowed with machinery and equipment that does much of the factor management for them, allowing a concentration on increasingly finer and finer points.

whereas the challenges embraced by the more hard-core home junkies are those that entail making good espresso despite significant machine and process disadvantages (temp flushing on an e61, achieving home roasting consistency, etc.). i'm not saying home baristi are better. we're not, on average. but the nature of the beast tends to force an incredible concentration on those things that have an impact on what the consumer tastes, and in thoroughly understandng the process that contributes.

i, for one, have eschewed the temptation to drop my dough on a gs3 or go doserless on the grinder, for example, because i'm determined to better learn and master my equipment instead of merely chasing the easier route.

this could well be foolish and masochistic. but i think being better versed in such equipment would tend to make pros more proficient at producing the good stuff regardless of context.

11/14/2006 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Gee, you appear to compare baristas to mechanics. I don't think that's the right analogy.

Underlying principles are great, and I believe that my command of those principles is fairly solid. But when someone asks for a recommendation on a home machine, I have little to say. That's frankly not good enough. I should know more. People come to me as a resource and an expert, and I'd like to be able to give them recommendations.

I can't think of an analogy here... which is sorta weird for me. :-(

11/14/2006 05:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...


At last year's Murky Geekfest, you graciously invited home baristas to the Arlington location. If memory serves me right, we had a Silvia, Solis, Gaggia and something with a Z (maybe Zaphira??). Anyway, we all learned how to make better shots through your guidance. If we have the opportunity to do this again, maybe the pros would like a try at producing respectable shots with our equipment. After all - you guys know what you're looking for in a good extraction. I could certainly learn from watching a Murky pro barista drive my Gaggia Classic!


11/14/2006 06:58:00 PM  
Blogger onocoffee said...

Interesting that this topic came up. I've chatted with a number of customers about home machines and recommendations and I tend to lean towards SuperAutos for the average home user.

For the home user, the SuperAuto has some tremendous advantages like a compact design (i.e. no need for a separate grinder), ease of use (just hit the button) and a shallower learning curve (great for spouses who desire a shot).

While I'd like to think that I can make a great shot of espresso at the shop I shudder at the thought of making it at home. Not because I don't have decent equipment (La Valentina E61 and Mazzer Major) but because I tend to be a messy barista and hate cleaning (grinds go everywhere).

And while I acknowledge that a Silvia and Rocky combo in the hands of a skilled enthusiast can make some killer espresso that's also the chilling reason: it takes a skilled enthusiast to make it and most average users don't want to take the time to learn how to do it "our way."

But here's a list of my recommendations for the home user (as I tell it to my customers):

Rancilio Silvia and Rocky
La Valentina
Elektra Leva Micro Casa
Solis Digital Maestro Plus
Mazzer Mini
Jura S9
La Marzocco GS3

11/14/2006 08:34:00 PM  
Anonymous SL28ave said...

My knowledge of equipment is having a hard time catching up to that of some of these home baristas. Though, I can go without some of the arbitrary techie impulses; I am expecting Andy's machine to have a seat belt and fly when the steam valve is opened.

I definitely need a better understanding of the basics and would love to attend a "Home Equipment 101 - What Every Professional Should Know", Nick. I'd like to know how my espresso tastes on all these different brands and teach all our customers how to do it. Once, like 16 of our customers brought in their home machines, each different. EVERY SINGLE machine had a temp over 204F and most of the owners didn't even realize it. Which points to the next thing: after better understanding some of this, we can put pressure on any manufacturer who's content with their Lavazza every day.

11/15/2006 04:45:00 AM  
Anonymous sl28ave said...

Also. I like the concept of super-autos at homes. But first I'd like to see a culture shift. If the espresso quality from most manual machines is not where it should be, why would the next step be convenience? I may be overly idealistic, but I want to take on the uphill battle - you know, for the children of the world.

11/15/2006 04:57:00 AM  
Blogger onocoffee said...

I'm not following the notion on "espresso quality from most manual machines is not where it should be." What does that mean exactly?

As I'm sure most of us have seen, even the best professional machines in the hands of unskilled and poorly trained PBTC can and will produce perfect examples of dreck. This isn't the by-product of a machine, it's a result of the weak skilled PBTC.

By that same token, I see home machines in much the same way. They are tools. Tools that, in the hands of a skilled person, can make potentially beautiful espresso. Conversely, in the hands of an charlatan, that same machine will produce the proverbial dreck.

11/15/2006 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger AndyS said...

onocoffee said:
> perfect examples of dreck

Interesting concept! :)

11/15/2006 05:11:00 PM  
Blogger Jassmond said...

For what it's worth, I follow a portland food board and saw someone talking about their rancillio and how to get better shots. She was wondering if she should change out of Hairbender because her 12 second shots seemed bitter.

Not knowing the machine, and mostly hating to try to offer advice through typing, I invited her to come to the the Stumptown Annex with her machine tomorrow so we can all troubleshoot. It will be fun to play with a new machine, interact with a customer, and hopefully reassure her that Hairbender is as amazing as it is.

Jeff Jassmond
Stumptown Annex

11/25/2006 09:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

grinder grinder grinder. That's the crux of her problems - 12 second shots mean

- too coarse a grind
- too uneven a grind
- she gets it ground in store.

Bitter also usually comes from stale coffee. My guess, since there's no mention of what grinder she's using, is that she's using store-ground coffee that's stale. Of course, it could be other issues - not dosing enough, over extraction issues, etc etc. But my bet's on the grinder, and maybe the lack of one.

11/26/2006 02:15:00 AM  
Anonymous jesawdy said...


I am a "home-barista"

I think you should consider getting a home machine or two or three and trying it out in the shop, or as part of the broadcast.

My recommendations would be a lower end Gaggia without a 3-way solenoid like the Gaggia Espresso, something middle of the road like a Rancilio Silvia, and some ubiquitous E-61 heat exchanger (even though I am sure the E-61's all have differences) say something like a Quickmill or Fiorenzato.

I am gonna guess that you can make all of them sing with your big pro grinder in the shop. Then try using a lesser grinder, like a Solis Maestro, and you'll struggle a good bit.

Super autos have their place, and they certainly are a lot cleaner. They can be better than a lot of the "dreck" out there in the "not-so-professional" coffee community (meaning the uninformed or ill-advised, and sometimes uncaring) shops out there. (That's not an insult to the frequenters of this site, thats aimed at the large percenatge of shops out there that don't know this site exists!)

I don't think you'll ever be able to speak to home machines until you've tried a couple. and are great, but as luca mentioned, there are fanboys, and those who know nothing else besides what they have. Does that really matter? Probably not. With time, patience (and the right grinder!), probably anything can be made to work most of the time. Maybe not with every blend out there, but at least with the more forgiving ones.


11/27/2006 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a home barista. I am always striving to make a better shot of espresso. I have a Gaggia Coffee/Virtuoso combination. That is right boys, no triple solenoid valve, no pre-infusion, and no dosing. Just a grinder that can grind coffee fine enough for espresso, and a machine that can pull the shot. Don’t ask it to steam milk and forget latte art. I can pull a damn good shot though. Since my local barista does not use the same techniques to pull shots that I do, he does not understand the nature of my problems when I have them. For example:

I need to set my own timer
I don’t have a doser
I need to prime my pump befrore pulling a shot
My machine does not pour a set amount of water.

I could go on and on. My point is that Joe Barista can not be expected know which grinders dose, which ones don't, which machines pre-infuse, which ones don't. What he should know, however, is where to find the information. By knowing that sites like Portafilter (NIIICCE!!), Home-Barista, and CoffeeGeeek exist, they are a step above the rest.

12/07/2006 08:32:00 AM  
Anonymous espresso machines said...

Hey Dude,

I own an espresso machine at my home. I think you should get one of those. It really delivers a nice espresso coffee. You can try to buy such machine in my shop also.

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