Espresso Lessons

After better than ten years of happily avoiding the home espresso problem I finally gave in last week and bought a fancy home espresso maker. Unsurprisingly, I did not go into this with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I have to say that I am surprised at the general quality of the shots that the new device is providing even at my relatively novice level of practice. As usual, many lessons were learned in the process.

The first lesson is about long term risk in the International Currency Markets. It turns out I should have bought this machine four years ago before the U.S. Dollar was completely in the toilet. The machine would have sat in my closet, but I’d have paid $200 less for it. This was actually the main reason I did not get the ISO Standard technical dork home espresso machine: the Silvia. At $400 or $500, the Silvia is a nice machine and, depending on how you feel about these things, not too extravagant. But $600 or more is a bit much.

After doing a bit of geek research, I decided on the Gaggia Classic instead. It’s a bit cheaper, will not steam as much milk, and is reputed to be more forgiving of marginal coffee than the Silvia. Right after ordering it, my wife committed the single unforgivable consumer sin: she asked about other equipment after the purchase had been made. This lead to the second lesson: you can always be higher ended.

The good and knowledgeable friend that Karen asked gave us contact information to a local merchant that sold Silvia machines and other fancier equipment. We called them up and had a nice conversation that proved to be very educational. Apparently, a $500 espresso machine is good “for what it is”, but eventually they break and then people go to this local dealer and buy $1500 machines. Well, some people do. The one fact that remains constant in all dork-driven consumerism is that there is always someone more willing than you to part with cash for perceived quality. This is not, of course, to say that spending $500 on a coffee machine is particularly rational. It’s just to say that in my current state of mind, $1500 is definitely outside the bounds of possibility, for now.

That being said, certain things about the Gaggia could eventually push me over that mental ledge into terminal stupidity. As I said before, the machine seems to take just about anything I give it, within reason, and turn out great shots of espresso. It’s everything else about the machine that is a bit marginal.

Mainly, it seems like you are always waiting for the machine to either heat up or cool down. Turn the machine on, wait for it to warm up. Pull a shot, turn the machine to steam, wait for it to heat up more. Turn it back to brew, now wait for it to cool off. Thankfully, the boiler on the thing is small so I don’t wait as long as I might have to on other machines. The smaller boiler limits how much milk to can froth, but I don’t like or need a lot of milk in my cappuccinos, so this doesn’t bug me. The steaming wand on the machine does bug me though. It’s too short, hard to work with, and has this stupid plastic super-frotho-helpo device that is ugly and cheap looking on a machine that costs this much money. At this price level, looks count for a lot. I’m living with it for now, but this is the only misfeature on this machine that makes me look longingly at the Silvia for “only” $100 more.

Anyway, the constant waiting also bugs me. Which is lesson three. For good coffee, you have to be patient. It takes time to figure out how fine to grind the coffee and how hard to tamp it. It takes time for the machine to get itself into the right state. And it takes time to learn how to steam milk, of all things. Luckily, when it all comes together you get a nice cup of coffee and you get to hear that cool milk steaming whine in your own house from time to time.

In any case, except for the retarded steaming attachment, I can happily recommend the Gaggia for someone who has decided that they want the $500 home espresso experience. Be careful with the frother though. If you put it on wrong, it can blow off the arm and throw hot milk everywhere. That’s lesson four. Also, there are two water intake tubes, and if you misplace one, you get mysterious cold water all over your counter. That’s lesson five.

I’m gonna go have a coffee now.