Coffee: A Journey

· by Steve · Read in about 18 min · (3675 Words)

I never used to drink coffee.

Early in my career, fresh-faced and beardless as I was, while spending my days coding business software and my free time tinkering with 3D graphics, I burned the candle at all 3 ends in a fashion that was far from healthy. The lack of sleep often took a bit of a toll on the old (or at that point, young) synapses, so at first I started drinking coffee purely for the caffeine.

Over the intervening years I’ve grown greyer and more cranky, but in the coffee department I’ve at least become more sophisticated, or so I’d like to think. It occurred to me that maybe others might find this journey interesting, and have written it up below in a long and frankly rather self-indulgent fashion.

So, if you’re a fellow aficionado of the magic bean (or cherry, if we’re being pedantic), or maybe you’re thinking of taking your coffee a little more seriously, perhaps you’ll find this interesting or entertaining, or maybe you’ll just have a bit of a laugh at my expense. It’s a long one, so if you make it to the end, you’re entitled to respond to it however you like, including telling me it was a load of old bollocks.

If you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin.

The Vending Machine Dark Ages

A man pretends to like vending machine coffee

A man pretends to like vending machine coffee

Oh boy. There were some bad vending machines back in my office days, but I encountered the very worst of them in the early 1990s. It was an abhorrent, beige-and-brown monstrosity that I can’t even remember the name of; it came installed atop a faux-wood standing unit with sliding garage-like door panels which I assume is where the refills came from. I get the feeling it was old even when I encountered it; it felt like a relic from an age of formica stereograms and horn-rimmed glasses. I tried to find it by doing a Google image search for phrases like “old coffee vending machine” and “beelzebub made flesh as coffee machine” but to no avail. I sometimes wonder if I somehow imagined this horror of a machine, but like the clown in Stephen King’s “It”, all who encountered it know deep down that it was real.

Vending machine coffee is always pretty bad, but this stuff was in a class of its own. The machine didn’t even mix it for you, it dispensed a plastic cup with some instant granules sealed in the bottom with foil, which you peeled off before filling the cup from the hot water dispenser. You almost always burned yourself because you didn’t have one of those extra cup handles the cup sat inside, because vending machine union rules meant that there were always at least 3 fewer holders than you needed to fulfil demand for an office of that size. The walls of the plastic cup were expertly calculated to be just thick enough to prevent molecules of water passing through, while allowing the maximum heat to escape into the hands of the holder - a rare nano-fabrication skill from the 1980s that has since been lost to science.

The granules themselves only barely dissolved most of the time, seeming far more impervious to scalding hot water than human flesh, which could be seen as a design flaw, except for the suspicion that it was designed this way by someone with a deep personal hatred of both coffee and office workers. Instead they inhabited a state of matter somewhere between liquid and solid, a brown, gritty water that stubbornly resisted your frantic, impotent stirring. But, it contained caffeine at least. It must have done, otherwise why did we drink it? Maybe it’s best not to think about that.

In many ways I’m grateful for this baseline. I doubt that it’s actually possible to have drunk worse coffee than this, and therefore I can feel confident that my tastes were appropriately calibrated to register the coffee equivalent of absolute zero.

The Filter Era

Let's face it, this is going to be sitting here for a while

Let's face it, this is going to be sitting here for a while

Although I started respecting myself more with better brands of instant coffee, my first genuine step up from the coffee doldrums came around 1996 when I bought a filter coffee machine, sometimes known as “drip” or “pour-over” coffee, especially to those under 30 who enjoy the art of facial hair topiary. The difference is that back then it was a perfunctory, mostly plastic and cheap-as-we-can-get-away-with glass, featuring none of the bohemian craftsmanship expected of this resurgent style of brewing today.

Suddenly I was buying packets of ground coffee, a product you could actually identify as being derived from an original natural source, rather than industrially processed granules of sadness. I felt sophisticated, in my own caveman sort of way. I started to recognise different origins of coffee a little, although at this stage I was still in the ‘chase the strength’ phase. That would pass later. Generally speaking it was pretty good, certainly compared to what came before. I still had no idea about the mechanics of coffee freshness and was buying pre-ground supermarket bobbins, but hey, I didn’t know any better.

The problem with these machines is not the brewing process, but how we ended up using them. You see, unlike the smaller brew-on-demand drip coffee setups you mostly see today, these things came with a fairly large jug with a hotplate fitted underneath, encouraging you to set it up once and enjoy on-demand hot coffee for many hours. You know what happens to water when it’s kept hot and standing for long periods? It slowly evaporates, making the contents more syrupy. And you know what happens to coffee when you keep it hot for too long? It goes sour & bitter. But, if the coffee is strong enough, you don’t notice so much and can pretend you can’t feel it burning the back of your eyeballs. You can see where this is going.

If you want to experience this for yourself today, I recommend having breakfast at a US diner which advertises ”unlimited coffee refills”, preferably mentioning “tasty French roast”. You’ll be scraping that off your tongue for the rest of the day.

Starbucks

It was a phase, OK?

It was a phase, OK?

Starbucks didn’t come to the UK until late 1998, and I started to encounter them mostly in the airport soon after; I was travelling quite frequently at the time and was regularly exhausted, so grabbing a tall cappuccino with an extra shot became a routine whenever I passed through. It tasted better than my filter coffee - I didn’t know what a low bar that was at the time (I can’t stand Starbucks today, way too over-roasted and bitter) - so I sought it out more regularly.

Quaintly I remember they never used to ask for your name back then, they’d just shout out the name of the drink and put it on the counter. I guess that started to become impractical when all the crazy drink names started to come in, it’s far quicker to yell “Dave!” than “Venti caramel gingerbread mocha frappuccino!”. With stupid drinks like that, it’s not surprising they deliberately get your name wrong most of the time, it’s the only way they can safely express how much they hate you.

Even though I avoid Starbucks today, and only go there when I’m having to be polite to someone who likes their coffee, I can’t deny that they represent a landmark on my journey. Like that guy in the first town in an RPG who sends you on bullshit fetch quests that are deeply uninspiring, but do at least get you to level 2 so you never have to go back there again. Sort of.

Italy

We’ve been to Italy quite a few times, and visited a lot of cafes. One of the things that strikes you when you do that is how the baristas are not the typical college students you find at a Starbucks or Costa, but more often someone who takes coffee very seriously. You’ll get an odd look if you order a latte or cappuccino after lunch, and instead of a hasty production line spitting out cardboard cups as fast as they can, it’s more of an artisan cocktail bar.

Having tasted this coffee, I started to realise that maybe Starbucks wasn’t that great after all.

First home espresso machine

Basic espresso machine is basic

Basic espresso machine is basic

In 2006 I quit my job and started working permanently from home for myself, and so it seemed like a good time to upgrade my coffee setup. At the time I had no idea whether I’d be any good at making espresso and its related drinks at home, so I went for an entry-level machine to see how I’d get on: a Delonghi EC140B. It was pretty cheap, but still more expensive than a new filter machine, but I took the gamble.

I realised pretty quickly as the water rushed out the bottom of the undersized portafilter that I needed to start grinding my own beans, because the pre-ground stuff wasn’t fine enough. I started off with a basic blade grinder (I know, I know) which was pretty imprecise but did the job for a while. I upgraded it to a relatively cheap conical burr grinder a little while after once I learned the difference. I was still using supermarket beans though, because I had no idea what I was doing.

As cheap & cheerful as this machine was, it taught me the basics of making espresso and milk texturing in a really approachable way, so I’ll always look back on it fondly; a bit like that jacket you wore in your late teens that in hindsight made you look like a total bell-end, but which you can’t regret because at the time it was totally wizard. Yeah, you know the one.

This little machine served me well for about three and a half years, at which point I suddenly started noticing an occasional nasty taste in the coffee. Turns out the cheap aluminium boiler had corroded and had decided to significantly increase my daily mineral intake without my consent. I’d been thinking of upgrading anyway so this was the push I needed.

Rancilio Silvia: doubling-down on semi-autos

It's a good-un

It's a good-un

So in 2010 I decided to get a little more serious about my espresso. I was still working from home, having discovered that _holy cinnamon balls_ maybe I really could make a living on my own terms. I was just clearing the decks to start a new project and wasn’t sure when the next income would arrive, so I figured if I was going to spend a bunch of money on a new machine, I’d better do it before the inevitable cash flow anxiety set in.

After doing a bunch of research, the Rancilio Silvia came out as a clear favourite; it looks expensive if you’ve never spent this much money on a coffee machine before, but trust me, in the bang-for-buck department, below £500 this is as good as it gets. This machine will make great espresso for years, as it did for me; brass & chrome parts, full size portafilter (the bit with the handle) - I was moving into proper espresso territory…

It was also at this point that I had to choose a fork in the road, and it’s a choice you’ll have to make around this price point too: do you want to learn how to use a semi-automatic espresso machine like this, or do you want the convenience of a bean-to-cup machine? If you just thought “What about pod machines?”, kindly close this tab immediately and get in the sea. 😉

Personally, I like the the traditional look & feel of semi-autos, and that they require some skill to use. They’re satisfying machines to operate when you do it right, which gives me far more gratification than just pressing a button. For me, refining the process of making the coffee is as much part of the experience as drinking it. Plus I can marry up a semi-auto with different grinders (more on that later) and I just find it easier to clean, particularly for milk drinks. But yeah, you will need to accept you’ll be a bit crap at making coffee until you dial it in.

If you don’t like practicing, reading coffee forums and watching YouTube videos about grind, tamping and shot duration, maybe a semi-auto isn’t for you and you should go bean-to-cup. If you like the idea of getting good at making something that has a hundred hidden variables and takes practice & skill to refine, the result of which is awesome coffee that you made, maybe you’ll follow me down this rabbit hole. Hell, you’ve read this far!

PSA: You WILL need a better grinder

Grinder. Not the app.

Grinder. Not the app.

I only found out later that when you assign your budget for an espresso set up, below £500 you really need to spend as much on the grinder as on the espresso machine, maybe more. The consistency of your grind will massively affect how good the espresso is, and pairing a good espresso machine like the Silvia with one of those awful whirly-blade grinders is heresy punishable by death (really, I checked).

At the bare minimum you need a burr grinder but really the £60 conical sort I had when I first bought the Silvia was not good enough either; I saw a massive improvement in my coffee when I upgraded to a Mahlkönig Vario.

Again this device might seem expensive given that all it does is crush beans to a powder, but seriously, how repeatably you can do this, keeping the amount of coffee you grind and how large the particles are within predictable margins, makes a huge difference. Nailling down a few of the really important variables in the coffee making process (there are loads) means you can better predict the process, improving your chances of producing wonderfully smooth, nutty espresso, rather than bitter dishwater.

PSA No.2: Buy fresh beans!

Beans, glorious beans

Beans, glorious beans

After coffee is roasted, it immediately starts to degrade, and ideally you want to consume coffee within 2 weeks of it being roasted. Most roasted coffee is at its best between days 2 and 9 after it is roasted; a couple of days to release some excessive CO2, then around a week after to retain most of its body. Unless you roast yourself or have a local roaster you might not be able to achieve this though; my experience is that if sealed in the 1-way valve bag that most roasters use, 2 weeks is decent, and stretching that to 4 is acceptable if no single bag is open for more than 2 weeks. You don’t really want to go beyond that even if sealed.

If I can give you one piece of advice, avoid bags of coffee beans that do not have the roast date on them - they could have been roasted any time from yesterday to 6 months ago (or worse). Supermarket beans are the worst, but any coffee roaster who does not label their bags with the roast date doesn’t care enough about freshness, which almost certainly means their coffee will be stale by the time you use it. You can, and should, do far better than this.

I’d like to use a local roaster but frankly I haven’t found one I like. I tried using a local roaster but not only were the results highly variable (the first bag was chronically under-roasted and I had to throw it out, roasted beans should not be yellow FFS), but they also didn’t define or record the roast date. The results in the cup were tepid to say the least. Given that there are many roasters you can order from online who will guarantee your beans are roasted the day they are shipped, this is not good enough. If you’re in the UK, I’ve used coffeebeanshop.co.uk for several years and they’re consistently very good, I often get my beans within 2 days of roasting. I hear good things about hasbean.co.uk too.

Don’t accept substandard, stale beans! How good your coffee is is a function of all the ingredients that go into it, your espresso machine, your grinder, the beans, your technique, and all the individual variables within each. If you want great espresso all the time, you need to make sure none of those things is letting the side down.

2016: enter the Rocket R58

Rocket Man, burning na na na naa here alone...

Rocket Man, burning na na na naa here alone...

As much as I love my Rancilio Silvia, after 5 years there were some things I wished we just that little bit better. These are things you won’t notice unless you start being really obsessive about espresso making, so until you’re at this stage - and I’m not sure I recommend it as a mindset, it’s just something that seems to happen to some people - I continue to recommend the Silvia for people getting serious about coffee.

If you don’t care about the details, skip to the next section, but, if you want to know the reasons I upgraded, here they are:

  1. The Silvia doesn’t have a PID controller for tweaking temperatures (unless you retrofit it in a Doc Brown kind of way) and the temperature does vary meaning you have to guess the best time to pull a shot (“temperature surfing”).
  2. The Silvia shares the boiler between brewing (for espresso) and generating steam, which means bouncing back & forth is slow and tricky when you need to make more than 2 cups, I wanted to move to dual-boiler for more flexibility & consistency.
  3. The pressure the Silvia exerts on the coffee puck doesn’t adjust during the shot to account for how its resistance changes as water saturates it, meaning you tend to get good extraction to start with but then the water starts to accelerate so it reduces in quality later, giving you less crema.
  4. The vibrating pump is noisy, commercial and higher-end prosumer machines have quieter rotary pumps instead.
  5. The under-chassis isn’t stainless which means it rusts - it’s cosmetic and doesn’t affect the coffee but it’s annoying and mine now needs treating.
  6. The group head screen is held on with a bolt which presses into the coffee puck & means it’s not a 100% even distribution of water.
  7. I wanted a machine with an E61 group head, which has been a standard for 50 years in Italian espresso machines and includes a pre-infusion step which you can only simulate with the Silvia (and it’s hard to do consistently).

So lots of little reasons, which honestly you really won’t care about until you get to the more obsessive end of the espresso enthusiast spectrum, as I appear to have done (oops).

I looked at a number of dual-boiler, PID controlled, E61 group head domestic machines to upgrade to, from manufacturers like Exobar, ECM, Izzo and Rocket. They’re all around the same price, and they all roughly have the same technical features, so any of these machines would be awesome, it really comes down to personal taste around the small details and styling. After a lot of back & forth I narrowed it down to either the Alex Duetto or the Rocket R58, and in the end I chose the Rocket, mostly because I preferred the look of it. I like how they excluded the PID display from the front of the machine, giving it more of a traditional look (it’s actually on a serial connection you can detach), and there was more space under the portafilter for larger cups, where the Duetto narrowed that and had a deeper drip tray, which I didn’t think I needed.

I’ve had it for a week now, and I’m really happy with it. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, and the quality is borne out by the fact that it took 2 of us to get it on to the counter because it weighs a ton. It’s been totally worth it though, the espresso is more consistent, with the temperature and pressure kept within tighter margins than my Silvia could manage, and I can steam milk much faster than before. Not only is the steam more powerful (which took some adjustment) but the dual boilers mean I don’t have to wait, I can switch between brewing and steaming whenever I want. Even for a single cup it’s faster but when making multiple cups it really makes a difference. The worst mistake you can make on the Silvia is making 2 cups, steaming some milk, then switching back to brewing more cups but forgetting to purge all the steam out of the system. If you do that you get the remaining steam hitting the espresso puck, which results in the next shot you pull being completely burned and tasting terrible, almost exactly like a double shot from Starbucks 😉

So if you’re a mad bastard like me who cares far too much about coffee, I can recommend the Rocket R58. Or pretty much any other machine in that class depending on what you like the look of, because inside they’re mostly the same quality build.

Congratulations!

Seriously, well done for making it this far. If you did, you probably really care about coffee too, or you’ve been humouring me, or you’ve been holding out for better jokes (sorry), or you just don’t have anything better to do. Whichever it is, I salute you, and thank you for reading.

This was my journey, and I hope it was interesting and/or entertaining. As you can probably tell, I love making and drinking coffee, and if I ever retire from writing code I think I could be very happy as a barista in a tech hub or co-working space, dispensing caffeine, advice and anecdotes like a nerdy Guinan. I don’t anticipate spending any more crazy sums on equipment for a while, but maybe that’s me just being naïve.

Now, go drink some decent coffee. :)