Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What Can Brown Do For You?

I just caught the Espress Yourself episode of Good Eats on Food Network. I am aghast. I've never disagreed with Alton Brown before. I've never been so thoroughly shocked by his errors.

Let's go through part 1.

5 min: I completely disagree that ground espresso beans aren't acceptable. I agreed with his assertion in True Brew that it's best to buy whole-bean because blade grinders are totally sufficient for ordinary drip coffee, but espresso requires a grind far beyond your average grinder. As long as you buy only as much as you need for a few days and keep the grinds in an airtight container, feel free to order your beans ground to a correct espresso level.

Also, especially for any grinder that is consumer-level, you cannot possibly grind too fine. Trust me. Your biggest problem will be getting a grinder that can grind fine enough. To my horror, he continues on in the episode without discussing what makes a good grinder or providing any insight whatsoever. Importantly, we never get a terribly good look at his own grinder, which I've determined to be the Gaggia MDF, which costs $300.

I'll give you my own insight into grinding. Basically, there are no grinders for less than $100 that will get you the grind you need. The Jura Capresso Infinity grinder will get the job done, but that's about it. You will not be able to achieve a true espresso grind in that machine. I believe you can modify it to grind fine enough, but I imagine you'd just blow out the motor early. If you want to grind your own beans at home, you will need to plunk down at least $200. The Baratza Virtuoso can also be modified to produce true espresso grind and only costs $200. If you only produce a cup or two per day, this would be a good choice.

7:50 min: Again, don't worry about weighing your espresso. Your biggest concern is making sure sufficient grounds are in the portafilter. Over-fill the basket, take a card and chop the mound a bit, then level off the grinds. Espresso machines are designed specifically for this action; you are meant to do it. There is one thing you should note. If your espresso machine's grouphead is angled or otherwise not flat, you may want to see if there is a fill-line in the portafilter. This means your machine has been designed with some bizarre specs. Be wary of these machines.

On to part 2.

0:30 min: He fails to mention spring-actuated models where a lever is pulled to cock a spring and it is what actually does the work of pushing the water through the puck. They are fantastic, very theatrical, and easy to use.

1:50 min: He finally settles on a machine near the end of his display... after making fun of the Rancilio Silvia. He might as well have made fun of Ferrari. In the world of home espresso, the Silvia is legendary for producing consistent boiler pressure and temperature. Why is it legendary, you may ask? Because it is a single-boiler design. One boiler means that it's pulling double-duty to generate sufficient steam to froth milk and push out a shot of espresso at exactly 200 degrees.

This is an important point since only one boiler is going to require a butt-load of wattage to do all that. He doesn't mention the power of the machine at all. Not even in passing. The machine he settles on is, I think, the Saeco Aroma. The design has changed slightly so I've uploaded a picture of the old model so you can see. The Saeco's boiler is 950 watts. The Silvia is over 1100 watts. I consider the Saeco at the minimum. You want a machine that's around 1000 watts, and never less than 900. There are lots of machines on the market that get this job done. Sufficient boiler power is the very first number you should look at. For example, my Jura Capresso Z5 is 1350 watts.

And to touch back on my previous comment about grinds, both the Saeco and the Rancilio are as low as you can go because they are the cheapest machines that will get through a true espresso grind. So I guess I should qualify my statement that getting a grinder that will grind fine enough is your biggest problem unless you try and skimp on your machine. But if you do that, your biggest problem is that you just bought a large paper weight.

6:00 min: Do not even get me started on his milk steaming procedure. There's so much wrong with it that I don't know where to begin. First, I guess, is the machine. Just check out this review from a user at Coffee Geek to see the problems. The wand has one of those nappy-ass attachments meant to make milk steaming easier, but only serves to muck up the process. It's called a pannarello and would get you laughed out of any serious coffee bar if you let them know you used one. You want evidence of how terrible they are? All you have to do is look at the atrocious foam Alton made while steaming his milk. He says he wants to get the milk up to "at least 160 degrees." At least? One-sixty should be at the absolute upper limits of the milk. He never gives the steam wand a burst to blow out any excess water. He keeps the wand submerged too long. He steams the milk too much. It's alarming. He does almost everything wrong. I'm not kidding when I say that Alton Brown has never done this. I've always found him to be spot on. I'd like to point out that following his steam disaster, the milk foam he dispenses for example looks like it was steamed on an entirely different machine, which I bet it was. A better machine.

Honestly, you want to know how to steam good milk? For one thing, get a better machine. Get one with a traditional or straight-fire wand. Yes, it takes some practice, but if you don't want to bother, go to a cafe. Then follow the advice on this site. For videos, I've embedded a few. I especially like the second from Nashville since they use a bottomless portafilter, which just looks cool. After viewing these, you should have a much better prespective on steaming milk. I'd also like to point out the power of a double-boiler machine, which is usually restricted to pro-level gear, in the Nashville clip. Notice how, as she is in the process of pulling her shot, she starts using her steam wand. It's just not possible to do that on consumer-gear. If you're really dedicated to making the best home espresso, it might be a good investment. The Vivaldi II costs about $2,000, which may seem like a lot until you consider that pro machines are frequently over ten grand, or that I paid $3,000 for my machine, and its internals are inferior.

A note on Ms. Nashville, here: She glosses over the actual steaming procedure a bit. For cappuccino you're going to keep the steam wand at the surface of the milk (stretch the milk) up to about 120-125 degrees, then submerge the nozzle and whirlpool the milk up to about 140-145 degrees to account for a ten degree overrun. I disagree with her completely, as well, about the thermometer. Even after making drinks for a long time, it's always nice to have one around because it may not be as accurate in real time as a trained hand, it's very accurate if you assume it's always about ten degrees below the actual temperature of the milk.

For lattes, stretch the milk up to about 100 degrees, then whirlpool the milk up to the 145 degree target. Remember, you're going to be starting with more milk for a latte than a cappuccino.

8:20 min: Boy was I shocked when he said that a cheap alternative to espresso is a french press. What the hell happened to a moka pot? Now there's some coffee to knock you on your ass. You could also go with Turkish coffee. It's cheap, but I think that might be more work than you're looking for. No, he should have mentioned the french press in his episode on coffee, True Brew.

So in conclusion, I was hyped when I saw that Brown had done an episode on one of my great loves, espresso. I was so disappointed when I saw his advice. It was so off the mark on so many things. Don't let this dissuade you from taking Brown's advice on almost everything else, though, his show rocks. Just, apparently, don't trust him when it comes to coffee.

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