Archive for the ‘ Espresso ’ Category

Gwilym and the Athena Lever Machine

Love your Lever

Ever wonder where the expression “pulling a shot” comes from?  Maybe not, but this is where; pulling the lever of a piston driven espresso extraction.  The first espresso to have thick and persistent crema, heavy body, and a tasteful balance between acidity and sweetness, came from the lever design.  At a time when the Italian infrastructure was mostly demolished, (1940) cafes needed a way to bring water to the espresso machine (previously steam driven espresso) when there was no running water.  The solution, designed by Gagia, ( still a name in espresso equipment today) was to put the water pump right at the point of coffee delivery.

Cosimo Libardo and Lou Barba of Nuova Simonelli, traveling with Gwilym Davies, are presenting the Athena lever machine in the USA this week.  I attended the event in Washington DC at the Counter Culture Coffee training center.

It is basically the same type of low tech water pump you see in old cowboy movies where the thirsty character has to drive a handle up and down to make the water flow.  Simple enough, right?  It is simple, very simply, so simple it is almost stupid.  Purely by accident, this innovation implemented so many serendipitously positive characteristics that it becomes mind boggling.  Here is a short list:
-The first espresso ever extracted above 2 or 3 bars of pressure, the lever delivers an average of about 9 bars along a declining graph of pressure over time, resulting in the first crema

-Drawing super heated water from the boiler into the piston chamber brings the temperature down to an appropriate range, with a descending temperature throughout the life of the shot

-Soft, slow, and gentle pre-infusion at 0 bars of pressure, which you can time as long or as short as you like

If you think about all the technological advances since this 1940 design, (electric pumps, double boilers, mechanical and electronic pre-infusion, gicleur regulated soft infusion, and pressure profiling),  all seem directed at reproducing what this simple device does in a natural way.  Let’s have a peek:


It does all these same things, but in a way that is slightly different than what we have become accustomed to.  It stabilizes temperature, but not in a flat line sort of way.  The temperature starts high and dramatically drops; as much as 10 degrees F.  It pressurizes, but again not in a flat line.  Pressure starts out a phenomenal 11 bars, and dramatically drops as low as 7 bars.  It pre-infuses, but with 0 pressure.  The differences are such that you can’t apply what you know from electronic machines.  Pre-infusion is long, the shot itself can run very long, and you have to really go out of your way to channel or over extract.  In fact, watching Baristas work on it for their first time, I was struck by how difficult it was for them to allow the shots to run 40 seconds or more.  Second nature for them was to terminate the shots before they were fully developed (thinking they had already over extracted).  Once you get the hang of it, however, you find that the high temps and pressure at the beginning coupled with low temps and pressure at the end will result in brilliant acidity balanced by intense sweetness.

Love your Lever

Nuova Simonelli bought the Victoria Arduino brand a few years ago, and have retooled the design to include a heat exchanger (it was drawing right from the steam boiler before) and some other small tweaks.   Cosimo is very intent about studying all aspects of their equipment in a scientific way, designing and redesigning equipment with the production of great tasting espresso always in mind.

Love your Lever

I have always been drawn to low tech and old fashioned ways of doing things.  My fascination lies with how problems were solved in such simple ways before humans had developed the incredible tech boom of the last 50 or 60 years.  I am in love with this machine and the simple technology on which it works.  With a gas flame, you can run this thing entirely without electricity.  Wrap you bicycle chain around the drive shaft of your espresso grinder, and you have the total package.

Jay’s Strange Jam

The eagerly anticipated opening of Jay Caragay’s second Spro location in Hampden, Baltimore, was pre-heated with a dawn to dusk Barista Jam last Saturday. The day was the organizational brain child of Lindsay Wailes, one of Jay’s Baristas for the new location.  The basic outline of the day went like this

-Eat a catered pastry and yogurt breakfast

-Coffee brewing Demos

-Eva solo, Clever drip, Chemex, Syphon, Aeropress

-Free play


-Competition rules and judging workshop

-Latte art workshop

-Catered diner


The crowd gathers early in the AM

Barista Joy "controls the moist" with a Clever Drip

It was a lot of stuff to pack into one day.  Jay’s Baristas had been put in charge of dialing in all the brewing parameters of all the methods using all the coffees they carry.  There were multiple roasters represented from Barefoot, Intelligentsia, Hines , Counter Culture, as well as local Baltimore roasters Bluebird and Zekes.  I like how Jay has delegated the brewing parameters to the staff.  Simultaneously empowering, instilling confidence, and raising skill levels, this ingenious training tactic has made the shop a better place before the doors are even open.  Each brewing method was demonstrated by the Barista who personally developed the shop’s technique for that particular method.  All the methods delivered extremely good presentations of the coffees specifically chosen for each brewing device.

Lindsay Wailes, event organizer, watches over a syphon brew

The space is located along a retail strip of old, narrow store fronts in an area where the architecture is reminiscent a little bit of Washington DC.  There is comfortable church pew (rarely do the two go together) and handful of two topper tables and chairs.  The bar area is designed with the Barista in mind.  An island of counter houses the brew bar, with a large hot water tower and it’s own sink, a single halogen burner for the syphons, a two bay stainless steel pour over station, and spare room for scales and things.  The old LaMarzocco Linea, developed and built as a prototype for Starbucks many years ago (but never placed in green apron service) now features bright halogen lamps that illuminate only when the group is activated.  The white light created by these babies is soooo much nicer than the blue shift of LEDs.

The white halogen shines on Hines

There was a cupping lead by Devlin, formerly a roaster from New Harvest in Providence, Rhode Island.  Scott Conary, USBC big time judge talked about rules and judges, and various interpretations of rules.  I lead a latte art workshop.  It was my goal to have a very informative workshop while keeping to a minimum of demonstration.  The only latte art I poured for the workshop was a single Monk’s Head design, which is something I like for people to practice.  It is a great “back to basics” skill drill.

Edit:  It has just occurred to me that Scott Conary is a big time WBC judge, not USBC.

Keep the glow alive

You can read about the latte art throwdown in the previous post, which I won.  It is the first latte art throwdown I have ever won.  I won a bag of people’s stuff, which was kind of cool.

Don’t do this


This is why I tell people not to keep their tamper on top of the espresso machine.

Ultimo Coffee

Almost ready to open (early May 2009)  is the newest addition to the coffee community in Philadelphia.  Get the story of  Ultimo Coffee here.

T-Shirt and pin from Ultimo Coffee

T-Shirt and pin from Ultimo Coffee

There will also be a lot of damn good beer by the bottle thanks to landlord and owner of The Tap Room, John Longacre.  The combined coffee and beer joint is call  Brew, featuring Ultimo Coffee, and is located at the corner of 15th and Miflin in South Philadelphia.

What’s Going on Now

For my 7 faithful readers, I know I owe it to you to let the world know what has been happening in the long while since my last spastic post.  I don’t have any cool mods or refurbs to show at the moment.  But the last couple of months have been fast and busy.  Crap, it is sounding like a Christmas letter already.

Betty and me at the MA/NEBC

Betty of Spruce Street and me at the MA/NEBC

It seems like I am in Pittsburgh a lot these days, I could call this “What’s going on in Pittsburgh”.  The Mid Atlantic/North Eastern Barista Competition was held in Cranberry, just North of Pittsburgh.  I had the real privilege of volunteering for this massive event, which by the way, brought the crowd in like no other regional competition ever before.

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

The view from the Rennaisance Hotel, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Barista Kevin at Voluto Coffee, Pittsburgh

Voluto Coffee, again in Pittsburgh, was a great experience.  While I was in town for three days of Grocery demo coffee, I stopped in here for 49th Parallel’s Epic espresso on a daily basis.  The crisp and uncluttered design was super sharp, the staff was knowledgeable and skilled, and the owners, Barb and Amalie, were warm and friendly.  It is definitely worth a visit for the coffee traveler.

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

Brandy of Lovers and Madmen, not in Pittsburgh

My friends of Lovers and Madmen have finally opened after what seemed like an eternity of pre-opening preparation.  At Ludlow and 40th in West Philly’s University City,  these guys offer a much needed touch of quality beverages to that side of the Schuylkill.

So that is what’s up right now.  Oh, I almost forgot, the Counter Culture Coffee Training Center in New York City is just about ready to recieve guests and students.  You will have to check here to find out about it.

Ever wondered what causes big bubbles to push out of the portafilter spouts when you pull a shot? I use to think it was a massive gurgle of CO2. I thought that fresher coffee gave off lots of gas, which is true. But the gurgle effect is something a little different. Steam is building up in the space between the portafilter basket and the bottom of the portafilter. The steam pushes out big bubbles once the stream of crema and espresso fills the exit chute. This may not bother you, and I didn’t give it much thought till David Lamont mentioned it. But if you like to read the signs of good extraction you may not want bubbles or a back log of espresso to get all churned up before you get to see it. If you really want or need to stabilize the flow you can ventilate your portafilter.

This video shows the effect of a ventilated portafilter as compared to a stock portafilter with both fresh gaseous espresso and a slightly more aged and stabilized espresso.

Ventilated Portafilter

Ventilated Portafilter

Meg will bury you with her polish technique

Meg and Cait of Baked and Wired in Georgetown, Washington D.C. came to one of our (Counter Culture Coffee) labs at the D.C. training center last week for some quality time with the equipment. As my loyal readers will know (you both know who you are), I am fascinated with Barista techniques and lingo. I consider myself a collector of sorts. I noticed Meg spinning her tamper like a D.J. and I asked her to reproduce her actions for the camera. This is for the benefit of the Barista community at large, as I hope to expand the knowledge and understanding of the craft among those who wish to know.

It looks a bit grainy in the compressed video, but look for the spinning logo on the butt of the tamper.

Aurelia Updates

OK, so the Aurelias that are out there in coffee shops are basically the same as the WBC spec Aurelias, but not exactly. They can swap out the valves located in heat exchange intake and outlet, and valves in the group head, to achieve a near perfectly repeatable brewing temperature with only a 1 or 2 second flush time. My co-worker in Atlanta, David Lamont, did have in his possession a WBC spec Aurelia for a brief time, and he experimented with the Thermofilter device to find beautifully stable brew temperatures.

The WBC spec Aurelia with temperature stabalizing valves install

The WBC spec Aurelia with temperature stabalizing valves install

Nuova Simonelli has achieved stable brewing temperatures in a heat exchange machine by carefully controlling the flow of heat exchange water into the group head. Bear in mind that the group head holds 1 liter of brew water in a reservoir. While the NS people use their soft pre-infusion and ergonomic steam valve control as their big selling points, it is the ingenious temperature control that becomes the shining star on the crown.
Imagine if you will the water sitting in the heat exchanger for some long period of idle time. This water has become too hot to brew, while the 1 liter of brew water in the group head reservoir has become too cool. A careful injection of super heated water, coupled with appropriate convection to blend the two temperatures inside the group head itself, would yield brew water at a desirable temperature. Conversely, a heavy load of drink prparation would move the over heated water form the exchange to the reservoir, raising the heat at the group head. But again, activating the pump will blend the cooler HX water with the hotter reservoir water creating a flow of appropriate brew water into the portafilter. The 1 or 2 seconds of flush time will purge cooled water from the pre-infusion chamber and bring brew temperature water in place and ready for extraction. The NS people have said that longer flush times will raise the temperature of the brew water. This seems consistent with filling the reservoir with more and more HX water. This analysis is purely my synthesis of the information I have been able to gather from various sources and through communication I have had with those who have Scaced the WBC spec Aurelias. I may be wrong about the details of the temperature stabilizing process, but my explanation is an attempt to make sense of the facts that I do have, which are:
Fact 1- Aurelias for the WBC are not exactly the same as Aurelias currently being sold.
Fact 2- The difference in how the two set ups function lies in swapping out a few Gicleur valves located in the HX and the group head.
Fact 3- Aurelias without the WBC set up function like any other HX machine, only with a very slow temperature fluctuation.
Fact 4- Aurelias with the WBC spec valves hit the same brew temperature every time.
I do not know what the NS policy will be concerning retro fitting original Aurelias with a new set of valves, but if I owned one I would definitely asked about getting it done.
My experience using the Aurelia was very pleasant from a Barista’s perspective. There is good clearance between the bottom of the spouts and the drip tray which makes moving cups and shot glasses easy. The angle of the front ledge does give good sight lines to the working area. While some have found the steam a little fast, (reduced in the WBC spec, and cool pipes to the touch), I had no problem texturizing excellent milk. I was not bothered by the dribble of the pre-infusion chamber, but if you are NS has a part you can have installed that drains the excess drops in an unseen fashion.
All this leaves only one major complaint. Can NS style the appearance of the machine to be more appealing to the eye? They have other models that are a sight to behold, like the Adonis for instance.
Much more stylish, the Adonis offer curves and sparkles.

Much more stylish, the Adonis offers curves and sparkles.

MANE Barista Jam in Full Swing

Today we hooked up four GB-5s, splicing electrical cord, duct taping it to the rug, and in some cases rigged a little hard wiring, to get things up and running for the East coast Jam of the year.  Jon Lewis, billed as “Keynote Speaker”, wheeled in a cart which was outfitted with a hand crank grinder, thermal French Press, and pumping device.   He brewed some coffee in the press after which he poured the liquid into a bucket of water, pumped the coffee/water solution with the handle driven pump into one cup, and poured it’s contents into someone else’s cup.  That cup was poured into another, and then again and again, until the whole audience had both received and gifted the coffee to others.  All the while, Jon talked of letting it flow, let it flow, let it flow like Ralaph Waldo, let it flow like Ultimo, let it flow like Giuliano.  There was also something about creating our own deliberate life as an artist would create a work of art.  Don’t forget, he was dressed in brown overalls and dark brown specs, as he was to be the espresso shot of the collective Baristas.  Thusly did we commence the Barista Jam.

A Spro Down was to follow, and I am wanting a rematch against Aldo’s Rich Westerfield, as he narrowly beat out Austin of Olso coffee in Brooklyn, and myself in the second and final round of the robust and friendly competition which raised over $300 for Bikes to Rwanda.  Not present was the whoopin’ and hollerin’ typically characteristic of these events.  Instead there was a respectful atmosphere nurtured with polite “golf” applause.

Annual Evaluation

So the original intent of my bolg was to chronicle my return to the SERBC, and hopfully take a top three spot.  I live just outside of Philadelphia this year, so I am not in the Southeast area.  Now I am in the Mid Atlantic, which may possibly be in DC come February ’08. 

 The topics of this blog have not really been about my future plans for competition, so I guess I have not really fulfilled my mission.  But in my own defense, I did not want to let the cat out of the bag as far as my sig bev goes.  One of the things I lost points on last year was the unique nature of my drink.  It would seem that it was not original enough.  I made it using an ingredient that I had never hear of untill a couple of months before the competion.  I assumed no one else had heard of it either.  Starbucks came out with a big ass latte using the flavor only about a month or two after the competition.  I can’t help but wonder where they got the idea.  But anyway, one of my judges had apparently hear of the drink before.  It was a shot of espresso with carmalized sweetened condensed milk; dulce de leche.  A Columbian neighbor’s mother told me about how they made it in South American countries and eat it in a variety of ways.  It did not score too well.

  The secrecy with which Baristas plan their signature drinks is instigated by the necessity for originality.  With hundreds of Baristas running through the course of competitions since the beggining of the format, it very difficult to come up with something new.  I thought I had come up with somthing truley original this year, so naturally I did not want to let any info get out there for someone else to beat me to the punch. 

    Anyway, yet another competition is getting ready for the near future.  If you have seen the latest Fresh Cup magazine you may have seen the paper doll Barista ad for the Nothwestern.  I thought it was clever and I cut it out for my daughter to glue on some paper.  But I also scanned it to the computer to have at it myself.  Please enjoy.


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