Buying Coffee Gear - Part One

In the first of a continuing series, Adam Tindale examines the bare bones of home espresso and coffee kit. {mos_sb_discuss:31}
A common question we get at coffeecrew is "How can I have great coffee at home for X$?" Here is my attempt at a generic answer. Often the amount is 200$. Let's start there. Here at the coffeecrew website, we have been screaming from the rafters for years about the most important part of your home coffee rig. The path to coffee nirvana is your grinder. I said it and I will say it again; Invest in a good grinder. Do not buy a blade grinder, commonly known as a spice grinder.

Why not a spice grinder? Don't we need fresh ground coffee? Yes, but the story doesn't end here. You probably know about the different finenesses of ground coffee: course, fine, espresso and turkish. If you are caught unawares, then all you need to know is that the previous list is given in graduated levels of fineness.

Photo at Left: The author, Adam Tindale, enjoys a fabulous Latte at HABIT Cafe on Pandora, Victoria.

Not all grinders were created equally. At any given fineness of grind there can be inconsistency, one bit could be a bit bigger than the next one. If the grind gets too inconsistent then there will be all kinds of little rivers and channels through the coffee for the water to escape. This means that the water is passing through the same bit of coffee over and over rather than going through all of it the same. Some of your coffee won't be touched, that means wasted coffee. Even worse, the longer coffee is exposed to water, the more bitter and nasty it gets. There is a really fine sweet spot of time of extraction where your coffee will be good. Remember, water takes the path of least resistance, so if there are grind inconsistencies then you are losing out.

Burr grinders make for a more consistent grind. This is the starting point. There are different shapes of burrs, conical and flat. In general, cheap machines use flat burrs and quality machines use conical burrs. Conical burrs have a curve to them which makes them particularly well suited to grinding very fine coffee. If you are going to be making espresso then you will want a good conical burr grinder.

Gear reduction is essential in a grinder. This is probably one of the biggest weaknesses of inferior grinders. Think back to high school physics. When you have a wheel and you put in a gear that is large to reduce the speed then you are rewarded with tork. Tork is the force at which the gear is moving, not the speed. This means that when your fast spinning burrs encounter an obstacle, like say... I dunno... a coffee bean, then they will continue to move with the same speed. If the speed changes then the grind consistency goes all wrong.

Another thing you need to worry about is static electricity. When the burrs are moving fast then the tend to pulverize the beans and impart an electric charge on them. If two particles of coffee have similar charges then they will repel and if they end up sitting next to each other in your coffee maker, then you will have a little hole and then we are up the bad coffee creek. The opposite can happen, opposite charges will attract and make a little clump that water is unlikely to try and cross. The two main causes for static in your grinder are fast moving choppers and a recepticle made of a bad substance. Some grinders have a doser, others a bin, and if they are made of some material that "sticks" then a charge will be imparted. Believe it or not, companies spend a lot of time and money to make sure their material does not stick.

Sound like a lot of trouble, are you ready to just get your barista to grind your beans for you for the week? Well, you know how coffee smells so good when you grind it? That is the flavor leaking out. That is why you want fresh ground coffee. Ever notice how good baristas wait until the absolute last second before grinding your coffee when they pull a shot? The trouble is worth it.

Here is my official recommendation. Buy a Solis Maestro Plus. I have been using mine for almost a year. I have been through numerous machines and it has always performed. I gave it to my local barista hero during a recent trip and I returned to a professional thumbs up. For 150$ this is the best investment you can make. As an unhappy Gaggia MM owner (99$), I can confidently pass on my continued joy with the Maestro Plus. It has gear reduction, 40 useable clicks of grind adjustment, a sturdy base so the machine doesn't walk away on operation, a nice timer linked to the power switch for hands free operation, a front power switch which is perfect when you are grinding straight into a portafilter and a hopper that will hold a little more than a pound of coffee.

I recently had my machine seize up and stop working. I tried pushing the adjustment so hard that I broke part of the mechanism. After much deliberation I realized that I hadn't cleaned the machine in the 8 months that I had owned it. I found instructions on the Baratza website and took the whole thing apart. I found so much coffee inside gumming up the parts. I took the burrs apart and got all the old grinds out and it was good as new. Mine is an older model. You can get a free upgrade kit that includes a heftier version of the mechanism I broke and a fitted piece of material that signicantly reduces the amount of chaffe that gets into the guts of grinder to gum it up. The lesson here is that no less than once a month should you clean your grinder, and I mean take it apart and clean it all. A well maintained grinder will last you for life.

Hold on, we have a 200$ budget and I just blew three quarters of it on a grinder. Think of it as a life investment. Trust me, once you get your first machine you will love it and then you will outgrow it. The maestro plus is the grinder that Reg Barber uses with his ECM Giotto (1700$). Anything that is good enough for Reg is good enough for us.

Now, there are 3 options for a coffee maker: Aeropress, French Press and a cheap pump espresso maker. If you are dead set on getting a pump espresso maker you can try ebay or go for a Hamilton Beach Cappuccino Plus. That was my first pump machine, I found it for 70$ at The Bay. I used it everyday for a year and I grew a lot as home barista during that time. Although it is a great learning machine, any dedicated coffee nut will outgrow this in a year or less. I have also owned a Krups steam powered machine that can be readily found for 50$, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who loves coffee enough to visit this website. Basically, I am saying to look at the next two options.

The Aeropress (40$) is a staple in my coffee arsenal. We have talked about it on many occasions here at coffeecrew, we have even been fortunate enough to have an extended visit from its' creator. The aeropress makes a very clean cup of coffee that will blow you away. It makes consistently great coffee and is very user friendly. Insert filter, add coffee, add hot water, stir, press, enjoy. That simple, my friend. Cleanup with the Aeropress is a breeze. Traveling and camping with this thing is great. It is basically three pieces of plastic and some paper filters. I have brought it as carry on luggage and nary a security person has had to search my bag for strange looking items. In the middle of the woods (or rural Ontario) you simply need to have near-boiling water. No waiting for half an hour while your little fire tries to coax the java from your moka pot. You still have 10$ left to buy some extra filters (5$) and go have a coffee at your favorite local shop.

Ahhh, the french press. You can buy a large french press for 40-70$. If you find a steal on a large french press, I would also recommend getting a single serving one for solitary indulgence. The french press makes a much meatier, full-bodied cup of coffee than the aeropress but still manages to extract all the flavors from the bean. Cleanup can be a chore and if you don't take good care of the screen filters then you can end up grinds in the cup. Very unpleasant. A major bonus of a french press is loose leaf tea. Tea bags are a terrible way to brew tea, you want the tea to touch all of the water to reach full immersion.

A final word about coffee and money. Budget for monthly expenses, but first look at how much you are spending at cafes. I spend 25$ per month on quality whole bean coffee. I spend another 25$ per month visiting local cafes to experience quality coffee and to escape my office. If you are buying coffee everyday you may just find that you are spending in the neighborhood of 100$ per month on coffee. If this is the case, then buying a home machine could save you 50$ per month. Try nickel and diming it for a month to see exactly how much money is leaving your wallet for that daily fix.

If you have been brave enough to read this far I hope you have learned something and also feel confident about your future purchases. This is the start about a multi-article investigation into where you should put your hard earned dollars.

Adam Tindale is a Victoria resident and Phd candidate at the University of Victoria. Adam is a respected fixture in most, if not all, of Victoria's most chic cafe enclaves. His writing appears regularly on the CoffeeCrew website.