Paul Strickland

Paul Strickland

Coffee Update

Over the past four months I’ve ventured into the world of coffee and have quickly been drawn into it. Although I started with a simple French Press and stove-top moka pot, I progressed into owning two grinders and an espresso machine. And for the last two months or so I’ve been drinking espresso almost exclusively.

After a lot of practice I’m now in a position where I can make what I consider an acceptable espresso. Getting to that point required a second grinder (that I now want to replace with a third) and a lot of coffee, but I’m currently quite happy with what I make.

Although good for the coffee I make at home, my progress so far has made bought coffee a disappointing experience — it is very rare that I can find somewhere that serves excellent espresso. But there have been a few exceptions, and I look forward to finding more.

Espresso at home

It didn’t take long before I caved in. Soon I had a Gaggia Classic sitting in my kitchen. I had some coffee beans, my first grinder and a lot of anticipation.

Getting a drink that tasted nice was relatively easy. It also looked pretty good, but according to a comprehensive guide to espresso I found at Home-Barista.com, my shots were pouring much too fast.

One of the reasons for this was the type of filter basket used in the machine. This is the basket that sits in the portafilter (the handle and metal mount that attaches to the machine itself) and what ground coffee is poured into. In commercial machines, the filter basket has a fine mesh at one end. Once coffee is pressed into it, water is forced through the coffee, out through the mesh and pours into the cup.

Home machines seem to feature a pressurised portafilter, often called a crema enhancing device (crema being the thick foam that forms on the top of the espresso), and its job is to produce crema in a way that is more forgiving than when using a normal filter basket. The pressurised aspect of the filter basket is achieved by restricting the flow of coffee through a small single hole. This creates a back pressure that is usually formed by a fine consistent grind and appropriate amount of tamping when preparing the portafilter.

I was getting tasty coffee using my pressurised portafilter, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know if it could be even better, if I could produce a shot of coffee that was just like I could get served in a coffee shop. So I bought some standard filter baskets and a metal tamper and got to work. This was where it got frustrating. No matter how fine I ground my coffee or how hard I tamped it down, I was getting a shot of coffee poured in under 15 seconds (I was aiming for 25—30). Among other things, I wondered if the pressure of the machine was too high, but in the end I thought the grinder might be to blame.

Grinders

When I started looking at espresso machines and the buying guides for them, the message that was relentlessly stressed was to buy a decent grinder. Apparently I should have been spending equal amounts on the grinder and the espresso machine at my entry-level price range.

Unfortunately I bought my grinder before the idea of buying an espresso machine firmly took hold. I bought a Bodum grinder and it did a good job for the coarse grind needed for French Press and the finer grind I used for my stove-top. However, whilst it had a setting that indicated espresso, and the grounds certainly seemed very fine, I think they lacked the consistency required for espresso.

Although I thought that my grinder might be inadequate for espresso, I couldn’t justify spending a small fortune on another grinder when I wasn’t entirely sure that the grinder was the cause. Fortunately I found out about the Hario hand grinder, and the reviews were very good. Being relatively cheap too meant I was happy to risk a purchase.

Grinding by hand

When using the Bodum grinder on even its finest setting, my coffee was pouring in about 15 seconds. In contrast I soon found out that with the Hario I could “choke” the espresso machine (leading to only a dribble of treacle-like coffee dripping out after a minute or so). With a little adjustment I was getting shots poured in about 20 seconds, so I was quite pleased.

After a bit of trial and error I was finally able to produce something that looked and tasted more like espresso I could buy. The hand grinder worked brilliantly, with the only downsides that it was awkward to adjust (requiring disassembly) and that it took about five minutes to grind sufficient coffee for one espresso. However, in my mind it was a price worth paying. Soon I was making coffee that I enjoyed far more than I had been buying in high street shops.

New coffee supplier

As I’ve written about before, I started buying my coffee from Whittard and enjoyed it quite a lot. The developing coffee snob within me, however, was searching for something better. Enter Pact. Pact is a small company that roasts coffee and posts it to its subscribing customers. Since September I have been drinking espresso using Pact coffee almost exclusively, and the company has impressed me on several levels.

I originally chose Pact for a very simple reason: the coffee was advertised as being posted in letterbox-friendly packaging. Since I’m at work for five days a week this meant I didn’t have to worry about scheduling a delivery for a Saturday.

Since subscribing to Pact (a subscription with no minimum term) I have been mightily impressed for three reasons:

  1. The coffee is fresh
  2. The coffee is lightly roasted
  3. The customer service is excellent

Fresh and lightly roasted

Pact roasts its coffee and posts it out in the same week. It’s hard to describe the difference in the aroma of fresh coffee except that it seems more intense to me. But there is a definite decline in the enjoyable smell of coffee as it ages: compare the smell of fresh coffee with some old beans and it should be quite apparent. The difference in taste is remarkable and has become more so as I’ve moved towards espresso.

During my introduction to coffee I started with a light roast. It had a sweeter taste and there seemed to be a more complex flavour to the drink. I originally expected to work my way into darker roasts as I became more accustomed to the taste, but I kept returning to lightly roasted coffee. On its blog, Pact wrote an interesting article about roasting that used a toast analogy to explain why it roasts its beans lightly. Essentially, perfect toast allows you to taste the unique flavours of a particular bread; burnt toast always tastes like burnt toast.

To me, everything about coffee is concentrated in an espresso; there’s also nowhere for a bad flavour to hide (start adding milk and I think the sweetness can mask quite a lot of bad flavour). So to get fresh coffee that’s lightly roasted allows me to taste a lot of flavour and sweetness in the coffee. One of my first bags from Pact was called Praline Espresso and the natural sweetness I tasted just blew me away.

The joy of great customer service

I was chatting to a friend at work recently who was trying to track down a missing parcel. It had been marked as delivered by the delivery service but was nowhere to be seen. My friend contacted the sender of this parcel, who dismissed the query offhand by saying it had been collected and was therefore out of the seller’s control. Whilst true, I think we’ve come to expect this low level of service, and it was this tale that made me realise quite how much I appreciate great service.

At around the same time as my friend lost his parcel, my coffee was also missing. It almost always arrives a day after I am emailed to say it’s been posted (in fact there have only been two occasions when this didn’t happen). Slightly annoying, but not the end of the world. The following day it had still had not arrived but finally turned up the day after. So my coffee was late but still delivered.

Normally that would be it. What I didn’t expect was an email from Pact to tell me that it understood my coffee hadn’t been delivered on time. Pact apologised for an error that was out of its control, explained that it would see what could be done to stop it happening again and offered me a discount on a future purchase. All of this was unprompted by me, but is a small gesture that, I think, greatly improves a company’s image of caring for its customers.

The downside

Buying an espresso was, briefly, exciting and enjoyable. Compared to making a moka at home I was treated to a thick, strong and intense drink. Unfortunately, but with a few exceptions, I can now get a more enjoyable drink at home. Buying a coffee now gives me a drink that I find lacks flavour, can often be bitter and is generally something to endure rather than enjoy.

I’ve discussed my new-found love for coffee with a few people, and a common objection they have to drinking black coffee or espresso is that it tastes bitter. I can empathise with them when the majority of suppliers will produce a fairly mediocre drink that is used as the base for any number of milk and syrup-based drinks on the menu. However, I have “converted” (or “ruined coffee”) a couple of people, and I’ve been fortunate to find a few genuinely amazing coffee shops. None of these are local to me so far, but hopefully that will change.

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