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 happen!
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.
The boiler is full.
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 right directions.
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.
Well, the steam works!
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.
Plenty of water here.
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 seconds.
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 60ml.
The first (15 second) shot.
4 shots later, this one was 25 seconds.
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.
Now, that's a firm puck!
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 deity-of-your-choice shot.
And here's the result, 30 seconds after brewing. It was delicious!
The machines used in the photos are the Rancilio Silvia Espresso machine and the Quaha Lux grinder. The coffee was Espresso Meridionale blend.