Coffee Capers

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:

Mine's a lot greasier and battle-scarred.

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 So I figured, well, the grinder can’t last forever, so I bought a newer version of the same grinder.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:

That's a lot of parts!


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.

The cracked piston, the shiny new piston.

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 itย  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!


Some 'spresso coming up!

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.

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14 Responses to Coffee Capers

  1. scicurious says:

    That espresso looks divine! What beans do you use? How’s the flavor with the oilier bean? And where do I get one of those beautiful machines?

    • namnezia says:

      I found that the fresher the beans (ie. the closer to roasting) the better. Also, the espresso tastes better if the roast isn’t too dark and usually blends work best since they balance different kinds of flavors. I usually get the beans from a local roaster near my house. Also the grind is important, the supermarket grinders don’t grind fine enough. I typically use the beans within 2 weeks of buying them freshly roasted. It’s better to grind the coffee right before making your espresso, but I usually grind enough for 1-2 days and keep it in a sealed container.

      The oily beans were unworkable, it was hard to push the water through the grounds and I had to make the ground coarser (plus my grinder broke), but then it was too coarse. Beans apparently tend to get oily if you over roast them. Some oiliness is good since it helps create crema on top of the espresso, but this was too much.

      • Scicurious says:

        Oh yes, I grind my beans daily, and I’m making regular coffee. Any recommendations on blends? I’m trying to avoid spending TOO much (I go through more than 2lbs of beans on my own per month), but I can treat myself once in a while, I figure. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Namnezia says:

        As I said, I just get it from a place down the street where they roast in house. I’m sure there are plenty of places like that in your city. Just go and tell them you’d like a a medium blend that would work well for espresso (usually espresso blends in the US are too dark for my tastes). The key is to find a place that roasts frequently and uses high-quality beans, regardless of provenance. Try several and see which you like.

        If you can’t find anything local, I hear Black Cat Blend, from Intelligentsia coffee is good. Make sure you order directly from them so its shipped freshly roasted.

  2. Oh by the way, do you know what a batirol is? Its also a good way to prepare choco drink. And as Im writing here, i planning of experimenting if i can use it for coffee and if it would still taste great. And since i don’t really know what’s the difference between coffee’s i think ill ask my man to taste test it for me ๐Ÿ˜€

  3. brooksphd says:

    WHat a brilliant post! I have a new shiny coffee pot thingy from the wedding and it has an expreso arm thingamawhatsit. Havent tried it out yet…but maybe….

  4. Dr Becca says:

    Swoooooon. That espresso looks amazing, and the machine itself is a work of art. Also? Your countertops are gorgeous! That’s it, I’m moving in.

  5. gerty-z says:

    this is AWESOME! I want a lever espresso puller now! I am the same way about lab equipment vs. home appliances. weird.

  6. I am quite sure they deliberately make home appliances such that you can’t fix them, and if anything goes wrong you just have to buy a new one. Makes sense, you know? Same with Apple products.

  7. Tom says:

    Let me tell you oily coffee beans have been known to take out more than one machine. You should see what they can do to an automatic espresso machine.

  8. If I ever! no but I would never be able to put it back together.
    I would never take apart any machine – no way, I’d not be able to put it back together and have nightmares just thinking about it.

    Although looks like you have really got this going better
    but I’ll leave mine alone for now alas!

    What would happen to the morning wake me up drink?
    I’d be lost without my Coffee Machine.

  9. CoR says:

    That’s it. I’m packing up the kids and we’re trekking to Nam’s for some espresso. It’s decided.

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