I don’t really think I’m a coffee snob, because I will pretty much drink any coffee swill that’s put in front of me. That being said, I do like good coffee, and good espresso in particular. Back when I started my postdoc I decided to treat myself to a decent espresso machine and after some research I opted for one of those lever machines that look like some sort of steampunk contraption with chrome tubes, and knobs and buttons. After some research into pricing, etc. I trekked into Manhattan to buy it and returned home with this beauty:
I had been warned that these lever machines were temperamental and unforgiving and that everything had to be just right before you could pull a decent shot of espresso. After experimenting with multiple beans, roasts, grinders and tampers (and drinking lots of test shots) I finally came up with a fairly reliable formula and have been drinking delicious espressos for the last 10 years or so. Last month, however, my espresso world was turned upside-down. First the grinder broke. It was actually a somewhat inexpensive grinder that just so happened to grind the beans fine enough for my machine, something that much more expensive grinders do. I had bought some new beans and they were so oily that they gummed up the grinder and blew its motor (I think, I haven’t attempted to repair it). So I figured, well, the grinder can’t last forever, so I bought a newer version of the same grinder. Of course it was not nearly as good, and the grind did not seem to be quite fine enough, and I was in the process of doing some adjustments when my espresso machine decided to break. The way the machine works is that you have a lever which you lift, it lets hot water into a chamber and when you pull the lever down it pushes a piston down that forces the water through the coffee grounds. Well, now, whenever I pulled the lever, it would not generate any pressure. I knew that the piston had gaskets around it and likely these just had to be replaced. This had happened once before and when I looked into getting the replacement gaskets I also found the parts diagram for the machine and was confronted with this:
It did not look promising, so I sent it all the way to faraway Seattle to be repaired. This time, when the gaskets blew, I decided not to be daunted by the complicated diagram and go for it. So I ordered a gasket kit, got a tool I didn’t have from Home Depot and set off to work, with the eager help of my 6 year-old son. We first removed the group head (the part where the coffee grounds go and where the piston and lever sits) and I gave my son the job of scrubbing the gooey residue off of all the metal parts. We removed the main gasket and the filter screen, undid the lever and pushed the piston through. At this point I looked at all the little parts and panicked. What have I done? How is all this going to go back together? Where did that little ring come from? But it was too late, there was only one way now, and it was forward. And we found that the problem wasn’t the gaskets, but rather that the piston itself (which has little grooves to hold the gaskets) was made of plastic (!) and was cracked.
Except for a few knobs and handles, this machine is made almost entirely of metal. Why would they make the part of the machine that receives the most stress out of plastic? I’m sure it was hard plastic, but over the years it looks like it got brittle and finally cracked. I blame the super oily coffee beans which did in my grinder. Back on the internet looking for the missing part, I found out that now they make it out of brass instead of plastic. Except all the places that sell it appeared to be sold out. Finally I found a place that had the piston in stock (quite expensively) along with parts for all sorts of coffee and slushie machines, put in an order and waited for the part to arrive. A few days later, the piston arrives!! It took a while to get all the gaskets to sit right, I added a little dab of silicone grease to make things glide nicely, and miraculously everything went back together with no extra parts hanging around (I think). And, just like that, we’re back in business!
I’m still not terrible happy with the new grinder, but apparently you can adjust the burrs a bit, and maybe I can get the old one to work again. It’s kind of funny how I’m always so reluctant to take apart any appliances/electronics at home but in the lab I’m all about “lets screw this very expensive piece of equipment/microscope open and see what we can get it to do”. My lab is covered with kludged-together pieces of equipment, often held together by duct tape, aluminum foil and cardboard boxes. I guess lab equipment somehow seems more accessible and open, while many home appliances are basically impossible to break into without breaking the case. We had this toaster that stopped working about a month ago and just to open it up was a major undertaking; it was basically impossible to do without damaging the outer case. It turned out it was simply a loose contact, but the thing was impossible to put back together. My wife didn’t want one of the kids electrocuted by the toaster so she made me throw it out. The nice thing about my espresso machine is that it’s got so many exposed bolts and screws, that it’s just too tempting not to take it apart. Almost like an old steam engine, or something. Now, if only I could learn to fix the fucking leaf blower.