Apart from occasional cups of drip coffee to go along with sweets and/or cognac, I only started drinking coffee a few years ago in the form of drinks such as iced americano with caramel syrup [the thick stuff, in the bottom only, no shaking, so that you can control the amount of thick caramel lumps that you suck up through the straw along with the cold bitter americano ;-], and then iced soy mocha. I was drawn to the pure dark taste of the espresso in those drinks and now I rarely if ever have them anymore, but started a while ago drinking only straight shots of espresso, perhaps one every other day. Then I was presented with the opportunity of getting the stainless steel barista for $150 from a local *$s, and I could not resist. I have used it every single day, sometimes twice a day, for the past six months, and was pretty happy with it (no grinder, bought preground coffee). That is not to say that I ever was able to make espresso taste the same way as in the coffeeshops, or at *$s (I like their dark, bitter espresso, sorry ;-). It was getting to me, because I thought I had a bonafied espresso machine, and I deep down am a coffee purist in making. Then I read several reviews on this forum and my instincts towards the machine have been confirmed i.e., that it may not be "exactly" an espresso maker, etc. Then I read numerous reviews that talk about how to circumvent the limitations of the machine, and I decided to try them out.
I was amazed this morning when I made my espresso because those simple tricks actually worked, and I was able to make my shot EXACTLY the way it tastes at the nearest *$s !! I am now very happy with it, and feel I indeed have a bonafied espresso machine again (some of you disagree, I know, but to each his own). Here is the trick that did it for me, all thanks to the wonderful reviews on this website:
1. To use as a benchmark, I got *$s espresso beans straight from the nearest shop, and made sure that they were the same ones that would be used if I were to buy a shot there (which I haven't for 6 months ;-). The beans were dark and oily, and with a heavenly aroma.
2. Given that I don't own a grinder, I had in the last month bought GROUND *$s espresso from the nearest shop and tried in my machine, but it didn't taste the same. Then, I borrowed a Braun KSM2 blade grinder from a friend to try it out, but it still would not taste the same when ground until it looked fine enough. Then I read in one review that 30 seconds in a blade grinder is a must, and that's what I did today, although for the last 10 seconds I thought I was ovedoing it. But, I really got a powdery grind.
3. I decided to prime the machine before I made the cup, based on instructions that I read here. In the past priming did not do all that much for me, but oh well.
4. I filled the pressurized portafilter (PF, the one that came with the machine) basked with the powdery ground *$s coffee up and shook it gently to settle the coffee until it was level, and left a space of perhaps 2-3 mm to the top of the basket. No tamping, as I had observed (and also read here) that the brewhead does that for you. I did not have to force the PF into place, as sometimes happens when I put too much.
5. Made a double shot, and it flowed in approx. 18-20 seconds after I pressed the button. Lots of nice looking crema (although with air bubbles visible, as some have pointed out), and a very dark color. I got excited, and tasted it. The difference in taste was amazing compared to what I get when I used a more course grind! It tasted exactly as it does at *$s. I drank it over a few minutes, and the taste really came forward once it was not boiling hot!
So, I guess that different factors contributed differently to making this awesome shot, but given what I've tried in the past with this machine, and that I've been searching extensively for the sharp, bitter still flavourfull shot of espresso without success, I have to say that the grind was the most important thing here. The *$s espresso beans ground at *$s or in approx. 15 seconds in the blade grinder do not deliver the taste I'm after. 30 seconds however do, and what a difference in the appearance of the grind between 15 and 30 seconds.
Now I'm going to buy my own Braun KSM2 (cheap) and see how consistent of a shot I can get with the 30 seconds rule, and the *$s coffee beans. Then I'm going to venture out into other beans, and plan to give an update here. In the meantime, I hope that my experience may help someone in his/her search for THEIR perfect shot (whatever that may be).