I came across an article on a recent trip to New York, and it explained the problem quite well. The article describes an NY Times critic’s attempt to find a real espresso in a city known for food excellence of every type. He had ample help from Italian residents to the regional head of QA for Illy.
It can be summarized by this one-liner.
If the quality assurance guy at Italy's leading coffee maker cannot score a good espresso under direct supervision, what hope is there for the rest of us?
This, after a story from the Illy QA guy describing a time where he set up a new machine for a cafe, pulled a great shot, then ordered one 5 min later from the barrista and it was bad.
The core problem, as many know is that people simply do not know what good espresso actually is…or even that espresso is a method…not a drink…or that Starbucks has “Starbucked” people into thinking that espresso tastes bitter and burnt.
The author went so far as to take advice to seek out a freshly immigrated Italian fellow at a random location because that’s where real good espresso could be had…that week.
I fully appreciate and understand this problem. There’s only one place in San Diego that I have had a seriously great cup, and only 2 total places that have served me actual espresso (and not just dark bitter water). I would go so far as to say that Starbucks has also not just affected taste, but the production problem as well. In order to keep up with impatient consumers, many establishments are taking the barrista out of the equation by using auto grind/dose/tamp machines and programmable volumetric machines. So, anyone that can push a button can make a drink. But, without understanding the actual variables of a real good espresso, you can’t actually make one.
FIKA is apparently a hip Scandinavian chain with a few locations around Manhattan. I stopped today in the Midtown location (Lexington and 41st) for a shot. The machine is a beautiful 3 group Synesso Hydra (a custom Hydra is what they use at my favorite local joint in CA, Lofty Coffee). Unfortunately, the shot was not quite up to the capability of the machine.
The shot looked nice, but it ran too fast, and was not nearly as full bodied as it should have been. Also, at $2.50 for a single, it’s not much of a bargain considering Lucid Cafe is pouring very nice doubles for the same price only a few blocks away.
New York certainly has no shortage of foodie heaven spots. On a recent trip after my new found coffee obsession (I actually spend a reasonable amount of time there due to my sons acting career) I started with a simple Google search for “coffee” near my location. The obligatory swarm of Starbucks locations showed up, as well as a small hole in the wall with pretty good reviews called Lucid Cafe.
Lucid Cafe is located at 311 Lexington Ave (Southwest corner of 38th st) in Manhattan. There was lots of construction and I nearly made the mistake of assuming it was gone.
It is a tiny hole in the wall with maybe room for 10 people to stand. So, this is not a place you will come to hang around and connect to WiFi. There were only 2 people behind the counter.
Their machine is a very nice (but smaller) looking La Marzocco. And, all shots are doubles. They appear to be using Counter Culture beans.
My shot was very, very good. The crema was thick with a nice dark golden color. There was a spice note to the aroma and taste that I’ve not experienced before, but it was really nice. The final sip was sweet and fruity with that spic note still present. At $2.75 for a double shot of very good quality, I will be back to try lattes and cappuccinos.
Really? Expresso? This was on a coffee grinder at a very large chain grocery store. If they can’t even get the name of the process correct, how can you expect the grind to be correct?
I should have ground some just for fun on the Turkish setting…maybe I could have had a whole thanksgiving dinner come out?!
Get a good grinder and grind what you need ever time you make a drink folks. It’s the single biggest improvement you can make in your espresso quality at home regardless of the machine you have.
There’s a ton of videos out there with a bottomless portafilter, so I decided to add one more. Seriously, can you have too much espresso porn? This is just simply unscrewing the Delonghi portafilter to remove the lower half. The basket here is a La Pavoni Millennium double basket. I have found it to be great for this machine, but they seem to be hard to find now. The coffee is Revolution Roasters Smooth Operator and was roasted 7 days ago.
I have now taken my dremel and converted my portafilter to bottomless for good.
As with most people I’ve encountered on the web in my quest to understand the perfect espresso, I’ve done more research than I did for my college thesis. I ended up with what many agree is the best sub $100 machine around, the Delonghi EC155. I’ve taken it to work twice and made morning drinks for my team with excellent results, but this last time I really noticed the poor little machine really couldn’t keep up. I only had one thought.
I need a bigger machine.
So, now I’m left in a quandary. I get really great results with the little Delonghi. I can consistently pull a 7.5/10 quality shot (as rated by others.) But, I do like to make drinks for friends, and this machine does lack capacity. So, what do I do? I would really love to pick up a Rocket Cellini, but at $1500, that’s a big chunk of cash. For $500 less, I could get a Nuova Simonelli Oscar.
I need a bigger machine.
After hearing about the “revolution” going on inside Cafe Ipe in North County San Diego, I finally stopped by to sample the results. The shot I had wasn’t perfect, but it was close. It was food enough to understand the quality of the beans being used. The barrista was happy to share that he was dosing 18 to 20 grams for the shot, and it was thick and yummy. The blend they use in their shots is what they call Smooth Operator and is roasted on site by Revolution Roasters. It is damn good, and the bag I bought was roasted the day before. When I got it home, in had to make a minor adjustment to my grinder, but the first shot I pulled from my Delonghi EC155 was so freaking good! The crema was thick, golden and sweet. I love the fact that this is roasted essentially right down the road from my house and it’s all the buzzwords you want… Fair trade, etc.
A few weeks later I stopped by while they were roasting and talked with Dan, the owner for at least and hour. He was happy to share tons of info on his roasts and reasoning for his roasts. Since then, I’ve tried 1 other roast, Surfing Madonna’s Elixir. It wasn’t as good as Smooth Operator for espresso, but it was still very good.
Cafe Ipe – 970 N Coast Highway 101, Encinitas, CA 92024 – (760) 436-2233
Revolution Roasters (Inside Cafe Ipe) – (858) 518-5028
June 2014, Update: Original article below for reference, but here’s my current settings. I am now using Revolution Roasters Smooth Operator blend. My grind setting is 8D AFTER calibrating my Preciso to use the second finest calibration. I pull a double by grinding for 10 sec, tapping the portafilter down twice, then grinding for an additional 8 seconds, distributing, then tamping.
To brew, I turn the brew switch for 6 sec, then off for 10 sec, then on for 26 sec. The shots are uniformly smooth, rich and wonderful.
So, I’ve been messing with my De’Longhi EC155
for 2 months now, and I’m to the point where I’m really happy and am consistently pulling a good espresso shot. So, I thought I’d share with you all. Here’s a little video I recorded of how I do it. You can flame me all you want for the way I’m temp surfing, or that I’m using Lavazza Tierra!
beans, or whatever. But, I’m producing a consistently good espresso shot this way. So, if you don’t like it, go make your own video.
Oh, and if your wondering, this is the tamper I use.
I just had the best espresso yet today courtesy of Lofty Coffee Co. in Encinitas. The shot was delicious, thick, and had not one hint of bitterness. It actually almost tasted like liquid dark chocolate.
Lofty is a small, very busy place on the Pacific Coast Highway in Encinitas. If you are there in the mornings, be prepared for a line out the door. They also have a selection of food that looks pretty good, but I’ve never eaten there…I’m here for the coffee.
Image Courtesy of The Lofty Coffee Co
After deciding to get good at making espresso and espresso drinks myself, I now have a new standard to aim for when making the best espresso at home.
Of course, being the geek that I am, I immediately came home and changed the grind and tamp on my meager De’longhi EC155 to get closer to what I had just tasted. And, it worked. 3 shots later, and I had something very very close to what Lofty had given me.
I’m sure there are other great places in San Diego, but Lofty is now on the top of my list for places to beat.
Beginner Latte Art
Yes it’s anemic. Yes, it’s barely there. Yes, it’s amateur latte art at best. But, I made it! I almost have the milk consistency down with the steam arm mod I put on my Delonghi EC-155. I think my main problem now is that the cups I have are too tall for latte art.