It was early December in Vermont and I had just returned from some Christmas shopping. She was waiting on the front porch when I pulled into the driveway. I got out of the car and just looked at her. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there, cold, silent and motionless. I didn’t know was how long she'd been sitting there, but I did know that she didn't like to be cold. I picked her up in my arms and we went inside where it was warm. There was nothing we could do until she warmed up. So I took off my coat, headed toward the kitchen, and did whatever I could do to help her warm up.
My excitement and anticipation were palpable...
But before I go on, let me tell you Silvia and I ended up together. About 10 years ago, on a business trip to France, I tried my first espresso and cafe au lait. They were wonderful. I never thought that coffee could taste that good. At that time, I was used to drinking instant coffee, cafeteria coffee, and dare I say, vending machine coffee. When I got back to the States, I decided to get an espresso maker to try to duplicate the French coffee experience. Not knowing anything, I purchased a steam espresso maker and made espresso (just strong coffee, in hind sight) for a while, making mostly milked drinks. For beans, I used canned or bricked pre-ground espresso coffees. I stopped enjoying the results (go figure). It just wasn’t as I had remembered. So, I retired the steam 'toy' to the appliance cupboard.
Years later, bringing us to November 2001 (make that many years later), I decided to try again. After learning that a pump driven espresso machine was better than a steam ‘toy’, I quickly purchased an entry level (less than $100 US dollars) pump machine, but returned it just about as quickly. In the same week, I moved up to and returned a $200 pump machine ($150 on sale). The major problem with both those machines was usability of features (mostly the steam wand and attachments) and quality of the machine (mostly plastic/aluminum, and not very heavy). I never had them long enough to see if they made great espresso. If I wasn’t going to enjoy using either one, then why bother?
Time for Research
It was at this point that my usual means of entering a ‘hobby’ took over, and I dove into the wealth of information available on the Web. I learned as much as I could before my next purchase, by using the web search engines which lead me to specialty e-business espresso sites (who would have thought). I also found the CoffeeKid site, where I learned about the alt.coffee newsgroup, Randy G's website, and others.
So, after reading espresso machine reviews, news group discussions, visiting personal web sites dedicated to espresso, and looking in my wallet, I thought that I had found the perfect espresso machine, and ordered it. Wrong. This too had what I considered to be major usability design problems, so back it went. My only decision to make at this point, was to get the espresso machine that everyone was raving about, the one that I really wanted, but couldn't sanely justify monetarily. So, I did what I had to do, and decided to 'go for it' anyway, and get the Rancilio Silvia and Solis Maestro grinder.
How did I do?
After 5 months, I have no regrets in the purchase, and can still say that this was the right decision. Silvia is extremely well built, is straight forward in usability (plenty of room under the portafilter, plenty of room in and around the steam wand), no fancy frothing attachments. Just a great manual espresso machine for the home. And, in the hands of a well practiced barista, is capable of producing heavenly espresso.
Where are we going?
And so, that brings us to the point of this article. Over the next couple of months I’ll be bringing you along with me as I learn to make the finest espresso that Silvia can make. What I hope to bring to you in these articles is the ‘fast path’ to espresso nirvana. I am no expert. Far from it. But when I run into problems, I will be able to use the expert resources here at CoffeeGeek to help me cut to the chase and resolve the current problem(s). In following articles, I’ll report on the solution and move on to the next level of skills, and their challenges in making great espresso.
Let's talk about equipment (the 'handbasket')
If you are just getting started, let me tell you what extra equipment I have besides Silvia and Maestro. A 56mm aluminum tamper (Planning to get a 58mm later), 2-digital kitchen timers (1 for timing surfing and 1 for shot time), 18 oz stainless steel pitcher for frothing milk, kitchen towels, paper towels, two 2-oz shot glasses with a line at 1 oz (I really need a 3 ouncer with all that crema that gets produced), and a small assortment of espresso and cappacinno cups. I also have an instant read thermometer, and a ‘thermocouple’ thermometer. Along with the standard Rancillo single and double baskets, I purchased a ridged LaMarzocco double basket.
You'll also need a grinder brush, one of those fat stubby screwdrivers you never thought you’d use (use it for taking off the dispersion screen), cleaning solution (Cleancaf), a nylon bristle kitchen pots and pans scrubbing brush, and (optionally) a faucet mounted or pitcher-type water filter (some use bottled water). A water softener cartridge that fits in the Silvia water tank is also avaliable. And finally, although it's not equipment, you definitely need freshly roasted coffee beans. Either purchase from a local roaster or purchase from a mail order roaster that will tell you the roast date.
Philosophy and Closing Comments
How do you get to Carnagie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. And so it is with making espresso. Learning from the experts also helps. Knowing how and why the experts do things, and then imitating their methods is good advice for the newbie. Once you have 'their' technique at your fingertips, then you can start to make your own 'variations on the theme'. Here is what I would suggest until the next column. Practice surfing using Randy G's technique. Use some cheap beans from the supermarket. This will allow you to practice your grind, dose, pack, and tamp technique. Don't worry about 'feeding the sink drain' with bad shots. The idea is to get the timing and technique down until it becomes very routine. When you think you have it, then go for the real thing.