The Grind Really Does Make the Coffee

One basic tenet of coffee or espresso brewing is that the grind makes the coffee.  It is not difficult to understand that if you put a fine espresso grind into a french press the coffee will come out sludgy and over-extracted.  Likewise, if you try to use a coarse press grind for espresso the water will rush through, barely extracting the coffee’s delicious flavors.  Until recently I did not understand the subtleties in grind, however.

A few weeks ago I became the proud owner of a Rancilio Silvia with a PID (temperature control).  I immediately set up the machine and went to pull my first triple with the Rancilio’s flat-bottomed portafilter (unlike traditional portafilters, this one has no “ears” on the bottom, and instead is perforated.  As the espresso pulls through the portafilter it coalesces into a single stream in the middle… at least in theory).  I turned on the machine, let it warm up, ground my coffee to my usual espresso grind, and pressed the pull button… espresso spurted everywhere.

I tried a finer grind, I tried a coarser grind, I tried a traditional portafilter, I tamped with all my might, but still every time I tried to pull a shot my kitchen ended up covered in espresso.  Even on the finest grind my burr grinder could manage, this high-pressured machine blasted water through the portafilter like I had forgotten to pack the espresso.

I needed to change my tactic.  I still was not positive about the nature of the problem, but thought maybe it was not my machine after all, maybe it was… my grinder.  So I went down to Oren’s Daily Roast and talked with one of the baristas there.  He sold me coffee in 3 separate grounds: #5 (their traditional “electric espresso machine grind”), #4 (slightly finer), and #3 (the grind Oren’s uses for its industrial machines).

The #5 was useless, with water still spurting through, but the #4 was slightly better, which gave me some hope.

Then I packed the #3.  I poured in 3T of coffee and tamped with all the strength I had.  When I first turned the machine on I wondered if I had run out of water, nothing was coming through the portafilter.  Then ever so slowly espresso started to drip through and form a slow, thin stream from the middle of the portafilter into my shot glass.  40 seconds later I had the thickest triple espresso I have ever seen sitting before me.

Now, 40 seconds is not at all ideal (~20 seconds is supposed to be the target), but I was very happy to know I could do it!  It is all in the importance of the grind, both finding the right grind for your bean and for your machine.

Now to find a new grinder…

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