Well, the postman has
delivered, your bank account has been trashed and you’ve got some large
cardboard boxes of espresso equipment sitting on the floor. Where do you
go from here?
First, unpack everything and make sure that all the
bits are present and that there has been no damage during posting. My
standard horror story re the Australian postal system concerns the
espresso machine that was delivered after some eager postal employee had
stuck a forklift fork through the back of it. The customer got a new
machine and I got reimbursed via insurance, but these things CAN
Then extract the instructions and guarantees. Put the
guarantee cards in a safe place and sit down and read the instructions,
paying particular attention to stuff like priming, switches etc. and any
“don’ts”. Grab your bags of free coffee (WHAT!! YOUR SUPPLIER DIDN’T
INCLUDE ANY? Gee, there are some cheapskates out there! (Very Big Grin))
and set up your espresso machine and grinder on a bench near a sink and a
couple of power points.
Now we get to the important bits. Depending
on where you live and who you buy from, some of your machines will have
been tested before shipping and set up to work “out of the box.” Most
won’t have been, so it’s up to YOU. First, fill the water tank of your
espresso machine, then make sure all the switches are set to “OFF”. This
can be a trap, because Italian switch conventions can be the reverse of
normal lightswitch settings, with down = off and up = on. Then plug the
machine in and turn on the power at the plug.
Then turn on your
machine’s “ON” switch. Normally, a couple of lights will come on, one to
show you that the power is on, another that the boiler is heating up. It’s
quite likely that there will be little (if any) water in the boiler, so
you need to get some in quickly. Press the “BREW” button and the pump will
start. Now, OPEN UP THE STEAM VALVE to give the water a straight flow path
through the boiler, and leave it open until water comes out of the steam
wand. Then close the steam wand.
At this point water
should start running from the group. Let it run for a couple of seconds,
then turn the “brew” switch off. Your lights should still be on to show
you that your now water filled boiler is heating up. You’ve just jumped
the first hurdle, your machine is working and your water is flowing in the
Wait until the "heating" light goes out, then
run some water out of the group and wave a finger under it. If it's hot
(and if you're so silly you LEAVE your finger under there and burn
yourself, don't sue me!) then you're in business.
The next thing to
check is your "STEAM" switch (which directs power through the steam
thermostat and lets the element run until steaming temperature is
reached.) Turn on the "steam" switch and the "heating" light will
activate; when it goes out the boiler should be at steaming temperature.
Open the steam valve, and if you get a blast of steam and instant fog,
this function is working as well.
Close the steam wand,
turn off the steam switch, and (depending on your machine) either hit the
“brew” button or the “HOT WATER” switch. If your machine has a 3-way
solenoid valve, this will direct hot water through the steam valve when
it’s open. Let the water run until the heating light comes on again, then
turn off the brew or hot water switch. Your boiler will now be full, and
your machine will be up to brewing temperature.
Now it’s time to
check the “WATER DEBIT.” Basically you’re looking for the pump to push 60
–100ml of water out of the group in 10 seconds. If you get less than this
something is seriously wrong, a bit more is not a problem. Turn on the
brew switch and simply run water through the group via the empty
portafilter for 10 seconds and measure how much you get. Assuming that all
has gone well, your espresso machine is now fully functional, but you
might want to empty the drip tray.
Your next step is to tune
in your grinder, and this is the point where YOU, the customer, have to
put in some serious work. The hard part here is “consistency.” Exactly
WHAT you are doing is less important than doing it EXACTLY the same way
each time. “Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you decide to accept it” is
to dose 14 grams of correctly ground coffee into the double filter basket,
tamp it, and produce 60ml of delicious, crema laden coffee nectar in 25
In my experience no two grinders are ever EXACTLY the same
when it comes to settings, so my first advice is not to be afraid of
wasting a bit of coffee to start with. Buy some junk beans from the
supermarket if you don’t want to use up your premium quality freebies.
Check that the grinder is not screwed up so tightly the burrs are
touching, dump in a few beans and grind for a few seconds. What you’re
looking for is a grind size that feels like table salt when rubbed between
finger and thumb. This is your starting point grind. Now grind at least
14g of coffee.
Fill your double filter basket level, wipe off any
excess coffee with a finger across the top, tamp it down (I use a fine
grind and several light tamps in a circle, so all the edges are firm, with
the Silvia’s cheesy plastic tamper) and lock the portafilter into the
machine. Hit the brew button and time how long it takes you to get
Normally (if you started
off with the table salt grind) you’ll find that the 60ml pour will take
about 15 seconds. Turn off the brew button, empty and wipe dry the filter
basket, set your grinder 1 notch finer. Grind about 5 grams of coffee to
clean out any of the old stuff, and set it aside. Then grind 14 grams or
so, fill the filter basket, tamp and brew. Repeat until you’ve got a 25
second 60 ml shot. When you’ve got to this point, replace your junk coffee
(if you’re using it) with good stuff and try again.
You’ll probably need a
bit of grind adjustment, as fresh coffee will grind differently to stale
stuff, but it will only be a matter of a couple of notches either way. One
way to tell if your grind and tamp are right is the quality of your spent
coffee “pucks” after brewing and knocking out. When they are dry, firm and
cohesive enough to be picked up, you are doing things right.
You’ll now be producing good (if not excellent) double espressos.
You can turn these into lattes or cappuccinos with a minimum of fuss, if
you have good frothing skills; otherwise it’s practice, practice,
practice! Now you have the basics down pat, you can try the variations.
Single filter baskets. Grunt (VERY heavy) tamps. More or less ground
coffee per shot. Temperature surfing. Preinfusion. The possibilities are
endless, but the important thing to remember is to hold everything else
constant and only vary one thing at a time, until you achieve the
The machines used in the
photos are the Rancilio Silvia Espresso machine and the Quaha Lux grinder.
The coffee was Espresso Meridionale blend.