While I was pouring a drip brew of some hasbean at work earlier, I contemplated the misunderstood pleasure that is brewed coffee and how it took me so long to realise just how amazing it is.
I was new to coffee, making my first tentative steps into something better than nescafe (or if you were “discerning” – Carté Noir) Espresso seemed like “proper” coffee – brewed coffee didn’t even get a look in. “Filter” was a dirty word – synonymous with acrid, overextracted coffee kept on hot plates until it was foul. Filter was what you bought when you didn’t have enough change in your pocket for an Americano.
So when I was ready to take the plunge, espresso was what I was looking for. I spent £50 on a little Delonghi and £20 on a starbucks blade grinder. The results were terrible – but I was elated, it was a massive improvement on instant.
Over time I moved on to the Gaggia (Classic and MDF), eventually arriving where I am now (Fracino Cherub and Mazzer Mini). I had finally learned what people were preaching to me all along – It takes at least £1000 of equipment to make proper espresso.
This does make sense – Espresso is a tightrope over treacherous waters, balancing the variables of grind size, particle consistency, water temperature, pressure and tamp strength. The results are so concentrated that every minor mistake punishes you severely in the cup and it only takes one dropped ball to plummet to the depths of espresso mediocrity – or worse.
These variables require quite advanced and expensive parts to keep balance. Good pressure control and temperature control for instance just aren’t to be found in your average £200 home espresso machine, compromises have been made in both expense and size – and it shows in the cup. If you’re looking to spend less than a thousand pounds replicating the “coffee shop experience” at home, you will be disappointed. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either selling a cheap espresso machine, or looking to feel better about the one they already own.
This leads me to another common mistake with coffee – forgetting the grinder. When it comes to show, the espresso machine with its glitz and chrome is an impressive piece of gear, but when it comes to making the coffee – the grinder is king. Forget about your bells and whistles, grind uniformity is the primary determinant of coffee extraction, pair that £400 espresso machine with a £50 grinder – and you’re throwing money down the drain.
Espresso machines force hot water through the coffee bed at pressure in around 30 seconds give or take. Any larger particles will allow water to channel quick and underextracted, denser puck areas, overextracted and bitter. Everything happens *fast* and mistakes are magnified in terms of impact upon taste.
Brewed coffee is an entirely different affair. The process is slower, more forgiving. The required tools are much less expensive and the result much more open and varied on the palate.
Flavours in espresso are fleeting, often confused and sometimes overwhelming. With brewed coffee – the experience is more expansive, flavours presenting themselves in waves and often in quite different ways as the coffee cools.
A wide variety of beans are available from all the quality roasters which are fully suited to filter.
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Finca La Ilusion, Agoga Goroka – it’s hard to find a coffee which isn’t suited to filter – and you don’t need to spend thousands to experience all the unusual and wonderful tastes on offer.
So if I could do it all again, or you are reading this and thinking about getting into quality coffee, without a multi thousand pound budget:
Hario v60 Dripper + Papers OR Chemex
Hario Buono Kettle
Hario Skerton Grinder
Total budget – well under £150 for all the equipment and three months of the best coffee you will ever taste.
Don’t be so seduced by espresso that you spend years making it poorly on substandard equipment. Go down the filter route, at lower cost – for better quality and you will have a much more rewarding coffee experience.