Whether you're a daily dripper or a post-dinner sipper, your preferred roast does play an important role in the espresso. But in the end the most important key to a great shot is the consistency. How do you maintain a perfect balance every time? The short answer is solid gear and attention to detail—good coffee is a science after all.
I recently set out to source the top gear for making the perfect shot of espresso, soon realizing the daunting variety of machines, tampers and grinders on the market, so I turned to Chris Nachtrieb of Chris Coffee for help. Over the past 30 years, Nachtrieb has cultivated relationships with some of the industry's best espresso machine producers and has become known for his extensive mechanical knowledge about how machines work. A huge proponent for improving espresso, Nachtrieb happily customizes machines to customer specifications.
I was first drawn to the good looks of Quick Mill's Vetrano machine, and after a few pulls was very pleased with the results. With further research, I realized in many high-end home espresso makers—the Vetrano included—a single boiler both heats the steam for milk and the water for espresso. These machines use heat exchange, meaning that inside the boiler 255° water surrounds a chamber and when water passes through this chamber it is flash heated before being run through the coffee grounds. While this is an acceptable system, it can't guarantee proper temperature control. If the machine sits idle for awhile, the water stagnates inside the heated chamber and becomes too hot, corrupting the flavor of the espresso.
Based on this slight frustration with the Vetrano, Nachtrieb told me about Izzo's Duetto II (above), a dual-boiler machine that has a smaller boiler for heating water for coffee and a larger boiler dedicated to producing steam. Ideally coffee should be brewed between 199° and 205° and the Duetto II has built-in digital controls that allow you to set exact temperatures. This also means true coffee nerds can experiment with developing different temperatures for particular blends to achieve the most desirable taste.
Beyond its ability to provide consistent results, the Duetto II also contains an E61 commercial set up, a 15 or 20 amp circuit (allowing you to choose between running both boilers simultaneously or individually to save energy), the option for direct or indirect plumbing and the ability to install a drain into the drip tray. This machine is extremely versatile and provides what is most important, according to Nachtrieb, repeatability.
Armed with a machine that can press out some of the tastiest espresso this side of Naples, now you need the right accessories to compliment your consistent flavor. Second in hierarchical importance to the machine is the grinder. As with temperature preference, the grind is all about the user's desires and prosumer tools allow for a totally customizable experience. The Baratza Vario is a commercial grinder that packs tons of features into a small package, making it a great choice for home use. This powerful grinder has 54mm ceramic flat burrs and a throughput of 1.9 grams per second. There are also over 230 programmable grind settings and three grind time buttons, so you can calibrate it once and it will deliver the same results every time.
Finally every set-up needs a solid knock box, tamper, tamping stand and porta filter. One of Italy's premier stainless steel manufacturers, Motta's knock box is stamped out of 18/10 stainless and has no welds for a completely smooth interior. Reinforced on the bottom with durable rubber, this knock box can absorb shock while appearing sleek and elegant. Espro produces a calibrated tamper that looks ordinary but actually gives you a feedback click when you have reached the optimum 30 pounds of pressure.To prevent stray grounds from ending up in your coffee, try Cafelat's beautiful tamping stand, a stainless steel frame coated in durable food grade rubber.
Another essential for making sure you maintain a perfect shot is a bottomless portafilter. These resemble a classic portafilter but without the spout-like protrusion, revealing the flat underside where the coffee will emerge. The bottomless portafilters are handy for anyone, ranging from barista trainees to at home professionals. By removing the spout you can watch exactly how the coffee emerges, letting you watch for channeling (when water sneaks through cracks or inconsistencies in the tamped coffee). This gives insight into the quality of your grind, the evenness of your tamp or if you used the right amount of coffee. Nachtrieb recommends the Rancilio Bottomless Portafilter since it works with all E61 set ups, including the Duetto II.
The tools for making great coffee are like any other, and need to be properly maintained. Full Circle offers a comprehensive line of cleaning products for your machine, counter surface and any other accessories you use.
Consistent, delicious espresso requires extreme attention to detail, an experimental spirit and the right tools. Once you lock your sights on the perfect combination of temperature, grind and tamp, the machines above will help you reproduce the perfect shot every time.