Healthier, better tasting and no more expensive than instant coffee
You won’t find instant coffee in our house. When the one instant coffee I actually had time for, Nescafé Alta Rica, hit £4 for a 100g jar I rebelled. I realised that I could enjoy my coffee more and be a bit healthier by using an Espresso coffee machine instead. The idea worked and I eventually invested in a smarter up to date espresso coffee machine. Unfortunately, I found that the coffee it produced was not as good as the worn-out old machine it replaced. This article starts with the thinking behind dumping instant and solving the problem of disappointing coffee from my new espresso machine.
The logic came in a brainwave. I suspected I was consuming too much coffee – around half a dozen a day and each with two teaspoons of sugar. I thought that if I switched to using an espresso coffee machine I could enjoy much better coffees but the palaver of making an espresso would cut down the number of daily cuppas. While, per cup, this would be more expensive than instant coffee, the overall cost of fewer and better coffees would boil down to a similar overall cost. The bonus would be less consumption of sugar. in fact I can drink some espresso coffees unsweetened.
I already had an ageing and seldom-used Krups pumped espresso coffee machine which primarily functioned as kitchen decoration. The Krups hadn’t been used because when I had been given it a decade earlier I didn’t really know how to use it. Anyway, Alta Rica instant was only £1.50 a jar back then. Ground coffee often went stale before it could all be used up, too.
Here are some photos of the kit and a comparison of the different qualities of coffee you can expect:
You can buy supermarket brand roasted coffee beans for as little as £2 for 200g. Using beans instead of pre-ground coffee meant the problem of coffee going stale was no longer an issue. Depending on the type of shot, I use between 7g and 15g coffee per cup. Instead of 6 or 7 cups of instant a day, I’d make 2, or occasionally 3 espressos. Even at 15g per cup that only works out to just under 2 pence worth of coffee per cup. Why not have gone for a pod machine, I hear you ask? First of all they are too easy to use, there is is controversy over the disposal of the plastic pods and, grinding your own beans is more fun and the coffee is fresher. But most of all, pods are much more expensive. Nespresso pods start at around 25 pence each in a pack of ten but they only contain 5g of coffee. In other words they are at least three times the cost if grinding one’s own.
I’d need a decent coffee grinder and after some research opted for a Japanese made Porlex hand grinder, which features ceramic burrs. Quite by coincidence I had a trip to Japan scheduled and a friend there very kindly provided me with the grinder as a gift after hearing that I was looking for one – thanks again, Yoshi! It has been used almost every day ever since.
To cut a long story short, my old Krups machine was doing a great job but the power switch became temperamental. I decided to get a more stylish and up to date machine. I acquired a DeLonghi Icona 310 vintage-style machine via Gumtree for, wait for it, £20-. It was in excellent condition and I have seen new ones priced as much as £195. Internally, it’s basically the same as cheaper DeLonghi models that sell for as little as £50, new. One difference with the cheapest models is in the supplied portafilter baskets.
Too much pressure
A portafilter is the contraption you remove from the machine, charge the filter basket with ground coffee and then re-fit so that the hot water can be forced through the coffee into your cup. The portafilter baskets in my Krups were simple stainless steel cups with tiny perforations. However, the DeLonghi has so-called ‘pressurised’ filter baskets. In fact with ‘true’ pumped espresso coffee machines water is pumped at around 18 bar through the coffee. DeLonghi and some other manufacturers supplement this with baskets that have a pressure valve to maintain pressure even if the coffee is not finely ground as is required for standard espresso machines. This means you can use coffee with a less fine grind intended for filter and French press or cafetiere/plunger coffee makers.
The problem I immediately discovered was that the coffee I was getting out of my new DeLonghi was noticeably more bitter. The ‘crema’ – the creamy light-coloured top of a good espresso – was more frothy than the creamy smooth finish as I was getting with the old Krups machine. After visiting a few online coffee forums I realised I was not alone in noticing this problem. DeLonghi is not alone in fitting pressure valves to portafilter baskets.
Cheaper DeLonghi espresso coffee machines don’t have the baskets with pressure valves. Using these baskets means you must use finely ground coffee and you need to carefully pack the coffee grounds into the basket using a ‘tamper’. The necessary, but not excessive, pressure of the heated water is maintained and regulated by the ground coffee itself. If the grind is not fine enough the water passes through too quickly and is unable to extract all the flavour-giving oils from the coffee, resulting in a weaker shot with little crema. The pressure valve system succeeds in maintaining adequate pressure so you can use less finely ground coffee and still get a strong coffee and adequate, if rather frothy, crema. The problem is that the pressure valve baskets over-pressurise proper finely ground espresso coffee. This extracts unwanted bitterness and you still get that unrefined frothy crema.
Just get a new basket
The obvious solution is to do away with the pressure valves if you want am authentic good quality espresso shot. Some have resorted to removing the valve from their portafilter baskets. However, the most effect remedy requires, in addition, cutting metal from the underside of the filter basket. At least with DeLonghi you are able to buy replacement baskets for cheaper models that don’t have valves and use those instead. It takes a little research matching up parts, sizes and machine models, but I can tell you it really does work. These replacement baskets can be bought on eBay or specialist parts suppliers for only a few pounds.
If you want better control over your espresso shots to obtain the best looking and tasting espressos, replacing a pressure-assisted basket is cheap and easy.
Have you got any good coffee tips? I drink my coffee black but my daughter is a cappuccino fiend. I have got that hang of making these though the milk frothing, for example, can be hit and miss. Your feedback is welcomed!