Time for Espresso


I have a co-worker who spends obscene amounts of money on computer hardware. I mean, since I’ve known him I’d say it’s a figure that is easily approaching six figures. No one really knows exactly what he does with all this stuff, just that he has his own little data center running in his apartment. I suspect the reason is mostly “because I can”, and so that if any of his little side projects take off he doesn’t have to bother worrying about scaling – it’s already built out to his best-case scenario. Lean startup this is not. Whenever new shipments of hardware show up at the office his somewhat joking refrain is usually “Hey, it’s a one time expense!” The application is wrong, but the theory is to buy the best up front so you don’t have to deal with the consequences of not doing so in the future.

Let’s get this out of the way: making espresso is not cheap. You can make espresso for cheap, sure, but your upside will be severely limited – quality, reproduciblity, reliability, etc. It’s a finicky art that is extremely sensitive to changes in variables so naturally the better you can control them the better your results will be. Beyond that though, I think espresso may be one area where it really is too expensive to buy cheap. It’s a pretty brutal way to make coffee, really. High pressure and high temperatures are not the friends of cheap materials, and a pile of finely crafted metal may very well outlive you. It’s tough to stomach, but for this hobby I’m invoking The Creed of the One Time Expense.


Making espresso isn’t just about the machine though. The “four M’s” are often cited as the priorities, in order:

  1. Mano dell’operatore (hand of the operator)
  2. Macinadosatore (grinder-doser)
  3. Miscela (blend)
  4. Macchina espresso (espresso machine)

It’s a bit counterintuitive that the machine is the least important of these, but that’s not to say it isn’t extremely important. It is. Let’s tackle these in order.

Mano dell’operatore (hand of the operator)

Want to hear something funny? I’ve literally never pulled a single shot of espresso in my life. Not even one. Oddly though I can’t remember any other purchase I’ve ever made where I feel like I’m as well researched as I am with this one. Still, I’m all retch and no vomit at this point.

To fix this, I signed up for barista school with Intelligentsia. This is the class that a lot of the baristas at the best coffee shops in Chicago attend, so it will be super helpful to learn from the pros.

Macinadosatore (grinder-doser)

Buying a grinder was a huge mental block for me. Person after person kept insisting that this is a more important decision than your choice in espresso machine which initially just felt insane. It seemed so silly to spend $600 to turn beans into dust. But it’s a bit more complicated.

I think about it this way: when lightning strikes, it will generally follow the path of least impedance. When you force water through a puck of coffee at 130 PSI, it too will not travel all paths equally if your grind is inconsistent. In espresso parlance, this is called channeling and leads to an uneven extraction, shots that aren’t reproducible, and off-flavors.

So really what you want is a giant motor with large burrs that can dissipate heat and produce a perfectly consistent extremely fine grind without clumping. And when I put it in terms of “just buy a huge motor”, I had a lot easier time with it. Lots of people have a KitchenAid in their kitchen which essentially is just that – a $500 electric motor. KitchenAids are popular wedding gifts because they are expected to last as long as the marriage you are commemorating (ideally forever). With standard maintenance, I expect the same out of my coffee grinder.

I was pretty torn between the Mazzer Mini and the MACAP M4, but ended up going with the M4. I probably would have preferred something doserless for home use but the premium wasn’t worth it to me. I gave the M4 the slight edge over the Mazzer though because I like the worm-gear stepless adjustments. I expect this to be a little more convenient for me as I will still be frequently switching between grind sizes for normal coffee preparation.

Miscela (blend)

Chicago has a legion of coffee roasters, so I don’t expect this will be a problem. I’m a little worried about the cost though since buying 12oz bags can get expensive and I may have to blow through half a bag just to get a bean dialed in. I’m not opposed to buying in bulk but it will take some tweaking to get my quantities right so I’m not ordering too much and sitting on piles of stale coffee.

Home roasting suddenly looks really appealing, though I’m trying to limit myself to a single unreasonable hobby at a time.

Macchina espresso (espresso machine)

When picking out a machine, here is what was important to me in order:

  • Semi-automatic
  • E61 brew group
  • Double Boilers
  • Dual PIDs
  • Rotary Pumps

All about that brass, no trouble: The E61 is a standard brew group design that has been around since 1961 with an impeccable reputation for their durability and ability to control temperature and pressure extremely reliably. E61 essentially gets you a pile of dense metal which turns out to be really helpful when you want thermal stability. The machine I ended up choosing weighs 65 pounds, with a 1.7 liter brass boiler, and a separate .58 liter copper boiler for producing steam. The group supports passive preinfusion (non-plumbed) and pressurized preinfusion (plumbed) by default. I probably won’t plumb this thing in directly because apartment, but it’s nice to have that option in the long-term while still reaping part of the benefits of pre-infusing my shots in the short-term.

All of these things combine for a machine that will be very forgiving to the barista while lasting you a very long time. We recently got a new full auto machine at work. It wasn’t cheap, but there were far too many plastic parts for my taste. It had to be serviced after 3 days of use which reaffirmed my belief that your espresso machine should be a pile of metal. As I mentioned early, sometimes it’s too expensive to buy cheap.

Double the boiler, double the fun: I’m aware that my subheadings are getting ridiculous. Anyway, if you remember from my coffee post I made an exception for milk in espresso based drinks, and I intend to make my share of lattes, cappucinos, cortados, etc. Going single boiler wasn’t a deal-breaker, but since I’m trying to future proof myself with this purchase I opted not to buy something I would probably want to upgrade in 6 months.

I actually had a bit of foma I had to get over by not going heat exchanger instead of a dual boiler. Long-term I know I will be happier not dealing with temperature surfing and heat exchange flushes, but the completionist in me at least wants to know that I can do it. On the downside it’s an extra variable to try to master, but on the upside it can give you even more artistry by giving you a bit more control over your brew profile (humped vs. flat). Plus, heat exchangers are generally cheaper than dual boilers so there was a chance to save some money here. Still, I went dual boiler. It just felt like the choice I would be happiest with long-term, especially since milk drinks won’t be infrequent.

Dual PIDs: This one is pretty straight forward. I want to be able to precisely control the temperature of the water and steam boilers, independently.

Pump it up: I wasn’t super hung-up on this, but all things considered I prefer rotary pumps over vibratory. Mostly for their simplicity/longevity, but also because they are quieter.

The Rocket Dual Boiler R58 V2

And there she is.


Based on my criteria above, it ultimately came down to this and the QuickMill Vetrano 2B. It was very close, but the steam wand on the R58 is a bit higher…esteemed (high-five), and I like having a detachable PID so that it has a totally analog façade. I mean, it looks like a piece of art.


So there you go.

I’ve said this joke a few times, but now I need to decide if I actually like espresso. I’m mostly kidding (I do), but I still have very little experience with it. That is all going to change in a hurry.

Also, thanks to Aaron Tubbs and the people at Chris’ Coffee for consulting with me and letting me pick their brains.

One Response to “Time for Espresso”

  1. […] I fell hard down the Espresso rabbit hole, even going to barista school at Intelligentsia. My latte art is still pretty marginal, but I’m pulling good shots with increased consistency. There’s a lot more to say about this so I should probably save it for another post. […]

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