Archive for June, 2009

So! …What’s the best espresso machine?

June 28, 2009

Very Exciting Things are afoot at the plan cafe!

In short, It’s no secret anymore that the cafe is considering acquiring a new 2/3 group espresso machine, and that I’m therefore now researching candidates!

Our (very) old existing 2 group semiauto machine is loved and loathed, nurtured and chastised, inspiring and disappointing. It’s faulty, unstable, unfiltered and unfixable. But even though it’s all over the place, I still can’t help defending it – it’s capable of  making very nice espresso, with care (and frequently does so!). But I don’t believe that it can make truly great espresso (a term I don’t use lightly), nor can it even be trusted to make consistently good espresso – and it’s on its last legs. Hence, the plan has decided to put the old dear out to pasture, and the quest is on to find a suitable and worthy replacement. The trick is to find something that can (potentially) guarantee the transition between inconsistently good …and consistently great!

Getting something just because it’s shiny and new with flashing lights, would make the endeavor as pointless as it would be costly, in many ways.

I think the key priorities are:

VERY temperature stable
Easily adjustable, accurate and displayed temperature settings (either for all, or individual groups)
Reliable, consistent, and well built.
Reasonable availability of good service, repair and parts in our area (Cardiff UK)

Temperature surfing our old HX machine for each coffee is interesting and often successful, but it’s tricky, time consuming and very inaccurate. Having accurate temperature settings might take some of the ‘romance’ out of guessing the heat of the water, but I think it’s much more important to get the best from each coffee as often as possible, and to avoid heat-related extraction disasters. Besides, I think even the most modern, stable machines will need some degree of surfing – but it will be more a case of fine tuning, rather than thrashing about wildly and hoping for the best.

So far, I’ve compiled the following wish-list (in particular no order) of what currently seem to be the very best, most revered and respected commercial espresso machines around that feature adjustable temperature, all of which might be capable of taking things to the next level, and which may or may not meet all the criteria on the above list:

Synesso Cyncra  
La Marzocco FB/80  
La Marzocco GB/5          
Dalla Corte Evolution
Kees Van Der Westen Mirage/Minstral
Nuova Simonelli Aurelia (WBC temp upgraded version)
La Spaziale S5
San Remo Verona TCS
La Marzocco Linea (upgraded with PID?)
La Cimbali M39 Dosatron Thermo Drive

La Spaziale S40
Faema Emblema

Astoria Plus 4 You

…And I’m trying to gather as much information, opinion, pricing, comparitive advice, and additions to the list as I can.

Many of the contenders above will definitely be over budget, but it’s important (and fun) to consider them anyway! Others are within it, and some might be within the threshold as semiautomatic models.

A superior semiautomatic machine could certainly be a worthwhile investment over and above an lesser automatic. Semiautomatics demand good practice, attentiveness and skill from the barista – important things to instill in staff if you’re aspiring to produce the best. But they also require a constant monitoring of skills and standards, and an understanding of the techiniques required to prepare espresso properly; so as a long term investment for a cafe, an automatic could perhaps best guarantee consistency. But hey, there are superautos and beantocups for that! It all depends…

Any thoughts, suggestions or preferences anyone?



Ouch!!!!!!!! There’s THIS on the way..!

London and A Taste of Canada

June 28, 2009

Had a nice trip down to London the other day for Taste of Canada at Square Mile, with Glen and Nik from Black Mountains Coffee Co, and Lobster Bob.

Due to unfeasibly (ridiculously) awful traffic, we arrived at Whitecross St market just as Gwilym’s cart was closing. Gwilym himself was away in Italy (again! – quite rightly living the highlife!), and so I didn’t get to congratulate him in person or try a coffee, but his folks on the cart kindly directed us to Dose, where I had a lush, glittering espresso, courtesy of the combined efforts of James, SqMile blend, and the FB/80 there.

Then we popped over to Square Mile, where James gave us a little insight into the mighty Synesso, which was great, having never seen one of these in the flesh before, let alone it’s internal bits and bobs…


Naturally, there were Scaces, trophies, coffee, and Probats lying around all over the place as well! 

probat sqmile

We ducked out for a while to let the team get ready for the evening, and when we returned, a chatty buzz of coffee folks had already gathered in readiness for the evening’s tasting. James then proceeded to knock out about 200 shots on the Synesso in the next hour or two with a very impressive sense of ease!

toc ab

What really struck me (perhaps more than the individual coffees themselves) was the amazing quality, clarity and crispness of the espresso. The equipment set-up at Square Mile undoubtedly plays a key role in making this possible. The shot I had at Dose was of a similar stature, from a probably comparable set-up. Exciting stuff! This level of espresso quality is something that is very difficult, even impossible I think, for me to achieve at present, regardless of the coffee and diligence deployed…

toc b

As is usually the case for me with these coffee events, I come away with the valuable sense that I know next to nothing compared with some of the many talented coffee people out there, but at the same time, I feel inspired to continue trying to improve what I do. Improving my tasting ability is one key area – any blind tasting of unfamiliar coffees like this helps, but I still struggled to accurately pin-down the coffees’ key characteristics. Judging by the comments board, I was not alone though! I think to some extent, lots of us may have been searching toohard for distinctive or  unusual flavours. I think my favourite was No. 3 (49th Parallel’s Epic).

toc c

Managed to catch-up a little with various folks I’ve met in recent times, although sadly there were others I didn’t get chance to. Infact, due to the chatting (and being wired on caffeine), I never thought to buy a bag of Square Mile’s coffee whilst I was there, which I’m a bit annoyed about! Oh well – I guess I’ve already got too much coffee at home…

A lovely evening, place, coffee and people. Thanks to James, Anette and David, etc, at the roastery, and Black Mountains Coffee for inviting me along.

Out with the old…

June 15, 2009

blades 1

…Old blades!

blades a

blades e

Well below par …sorry!

June 14, 2009

I’d like to apologise (again!) for the particularly poor shot of espresso I served Tristan the other day when he popped into the cafe. Perhaps it’s not something I should really broadcast, but I don’t mind admitting to shortcomings when they occur. If anything I think it’s important to be aware of them, as they can serve as a tool to improve what I do, and understand where improvements can be made (although I will shortly be placing a good portion of the blame at the door of our crazy, ancient machine!).

I had a lovely coffee in the grinder (Tanzania Blackburn Estate AB from Peter James), with which I would ideally serve up a syrupy ristretto double with sweet dark sugar and black fruit notes. Yet, for some reason, it just would not behave! I even remade the shot as the first one looked pretty bad as well, but if anything the second was probably even worse. Whilst I can’t be sure exactly how it was in the cup, judging from the extraction, the visuals, and the feel (way too long and quick, with an insipid cinnamon colour), I just knew it was going to be pretty unpleasant, and nowhere near justice to such a nice coffee. I wouldn’t normally be happy serving that shot to any customer, let alone someone who knows and loves their coffee, but I wasn’t going to make shot after shot all day until it was right (much as I would like to), and so, unwillingly, I served it. Very kindly and graciously, Tristan drank it anyway (you didn’t have to!), and I can only apologise profusely!

It’s always lovely when coffee folks pop in to the cafe (even though it puts the pressure on!), but I can’t help feeling guilty when I know the coffee is not up to scratch …or worse. If  people make a special effort to seek you out, I really want it to be worth their while – not to show off – just because I want them to have the great taste experience they’re seeking, and that you can’t ordinarily get. In this instance though, I fear I failed!

Coffee produced with care on our very old machine ranges from (very occasionally) excellent, through to awful (when it refuses to behave), and tends to live between reasonable-to-good. Sadly this shot, despite my best efforts, was very much towards the lower end of the spectrum. It was below the standard I would normally feel acceptable to serve, and nowhere near ‘great’.

Not that I didn’t try. All my standard techniques were adhered to, naturally, and in addition I tried to surf the machine (which had been idle for a while at that point) down to a temp where this particular bean usually seems to thrive, and I tried a couple of things to compensate for neither step on the grinder being anywhere near the ideal grind at that particular point in the day (as I said to Tristan I could do with about 3 extra steps in between the others at times like this! …or stepless). But nothing did the trick. Aside from the grinding issue, I think there must have been some kind of nasty temp fluctuation, etc, with the machine (which is quite common with it) for the shot to extract as it did.

We’re now using some really fantastic coffees for the espresso at the cafe, and with the degree of care I dedicate to my work, the consistency and quality should really be higher. Whilst this shot was particularly below par, it was by no means a one-off: in all honesty it’s actually quite common for our shots to suffer from similar issues, regardless of how diligently and carefully one works. That said, I’d like to stress that the majority of my espressos would normally be at least a bit, or even vastly, better than than this one. And also, to an extent, the sort of discrepancies that really upset me might not even be of any concern to most customers. But I aim to constantly improve what I serve, and I believe that at some point in the future, improvements to our machinery will help not only to near-eradicate more extreme gaffs like this one, but also to raise the overall standard much closer to the great end of the spectrum!

Until then, Se la vie!