Win Otto - My Life in Coffee - By Bert McGrath - #8

My life with coffee

In early 2007, at 63 years old, I had been drinking drip-brewed Folgers, Starbucks, and Edwards coffee. It was a hot breakfast liquid and no further thought was given to it.

And then 2 years ago I visited my son in Nelson B.C. who had recently acquired a Saeco Aroma and Baratza Virtuoso and was using Oso Negro coffee beans. He made me a strong Americano and I was hooked halfway through my first cup. It was coffee that tasted good beyond my wildest dreams. He suggested that I get an Aeropress and start doing research on Espresso machines and burr grinders.

I immediately got an Aeropress from and was soon drinking very good coffee twice a day with ground beans from Starbucks. But, not as good as the coffee my son had made for me.

After 8 months of research and some emails to Colin Newell I finally decided on the Rancilio Silvia and Rocky grinder which arrived from on March 2, 2008. Thanks to Coffee Crew and Mark Prince at Coffee Geek for the article “How to buy an Espresso machine.” And I must say that while the coffee from the Rancilio combo was quite good almost immediately there is a learning curve. I learned to temperature surf, tamp light or heavy, that beans have the most flavor about 4-8 days after roasting, that humidity and lack of humidity affect the tamp and/or grind, that high water temperature scalds the coffee. At about 3 months I had most of the parameters under control and could consistently get very good coffee.

I should point out that I have tried lattes – learning to steaming milk properly was a breeze – but very shortly I found that I prefer an Americano, adding about 2 parts water to 1 part espresso. My wife prefers about 3 parts water.

I have tried a number of single origin coffees from 49th Parallel, Discovery, Drumroaster, Starbucks, Intelligentsia, Cafe Fantastico, and other places, and they were all very good but I keep returning to Causeway Fantastico (another recommendation from Colin Newell) – It’s the coffee that best suits my need for a lot of body, rich taste, great crema and a hint of sweetness.

I have discovered that the learning never ends. Over the past week I have noticed that my coffee just wasn’t as full bodied as it should be. And then I remembered how dry it has been here in Victoria over the last week. So this morning I changed my grind to one notch finer but didn’t tamp as heavy. Bingo, another great coffee.

I have learned that the Silvia needs to warm up for 20 minutes plus, then wait through two more heating cycles and then do the shot between 110 and 130 seconds after the heating light goes off. It gets me great coffee every time and occasionally it is a shot that is so good I can hardly believe it.

I am a nut about cleanliness which I know really helps quality – brush, run hot water through and wipe down after every shot. Clean basket, portafilter and dispersion screen after every shot. Back flush with water 2-3 times a week. Remove screen and accompanying pieces and along with basket and portafilter boil them for 10 minutes in water with ½ teaspoon dishwasher detergent every 2-3 weeks. Back flush with a touch of dishwater detergent every 2-3 weeks depending on usage – average of 6 shots a day (2 glasses x 3 pulled shots.) Remove and clean water tank at same time. Rinse, rinse, rinse after any cleaning – at least half a fresh tank through everything. Use only Brita filtered water.

Recently on a trip back from Nelson we had breakfast at an unnamed restaurant in Princeton (but you can see it from the Chevron). Food was great. But I said to my wife, “What do you think about the coffee?” “Well,” she said, “It is hot and brown.” And doesn’t that just say it all. Once you have your own espresso machine and a good grinder there is no coffee like home.

Thanks: to Coffee Crew for all their help on this journey, to Geir Oglend and the Drumroaster for the best Americano I have had anywhere, to Derek at Cafe Fantastico for helping me with many discussions on how to get really good shots.

And while my Silvia will always be my weapon of choice I would like to try and learn a few other machines.


 Proudly sponsored by...
Planet Friendly Coffees
Lower Level
St. Lawrence Market - Front Street - Toronto
Everyday Gourmet Coffee - Front Street - St. Lawrence Market