November 29, 2020
Most people don't know a whole lot about espresso. That's OK -- like car enthusiasts, sailboat racers, or video game speedrunners, espresso makers inhabit a highly niche space in our world. After all, your average human is happy enough with the coffee that comes out of a poorly calibrated drip machine using stale beans that were ground months before use. Exceptionally crazy folks get into specialty coffee, purchasing expensive grinders, investing in kettles with configurable temperature profiles and goose necks, and trying out all manner of brewing methods (aeropress, french press, clever, chemex, v60, and more among them) to achieve the perfect cup. The exceptionally crazy of those exceptionally crazy get into an even more complex habit: espresso.
You've probably had espresso at least once or twice in your life. Maybe somebody prepared an Americano (usually a double shot of espresso dilited with water to make it "american" sized) for you instead of a normal cup of coffee. Maybe you ordered a latte or a cappucino at a coffee shop. Perhaps you've downed a black-eye or a red-eye espresso after a particularly restless night or during a long road trip. Whatever the case, you almost certainly had somebody else pull a shot of espresso for you.
I'm a rare (or perhaps just misguided) person who loves making espresso myself. There's something about the hum of the machine, the fizz of the steaming wand, the scream of the milk, and of course, the taste of the espresso, that just makes me happy. I first picked up the habit when I worked as a barista back in high school and early college, the proverbial gateway drug to espresso enthusiasm. I started to frequent a coffee shop near my home back when I was working other jobs -- as a dishwasher, a kitchen lackey, and a retail shill -- and it didn't take me long to start working there. Unlike those other jobs, working as a barista (or "baristo", as I jokingly referred to myself, the only male coffee slinger) was fun.
Perhaps my affection for espresso is really just linked to those memories at the first job that I truly enjoyed. Opening the shop at 5 AM and greeting the morning crowd on a crisp summer morning gave me a sense of purpose that I still lack in my current (much higher paying) corporate gig. Closing the shop at 10 PM and serving up coffees to lightly inebriated folks who needed to sober up before walking home across town (often for very generous mildly inebriated tips) was both relaxing and fulfilling, knowing that it was my responsibility to clean up the shop and get everything ready for the next day's morning shift. And the company was often good, too -- my coworkers were fascinating people from a variety of backgrounds and age groups who taught me a lot of valuable pre-college lessons. I even picked up some baking tips from the folks who worked in the back of the shop. And, of course, I developed a taste for my perennial favorite coffee beverage: a dirty chai latte with soy milk. A double shot of espresso, please.
At college, I continued my love affair with espresso. Freshman year, they forced every student to pay for your typical "unlimited" overpriced, swipe-based, buffet-style dining hall setup. Naturally, the meals were of low quality -- and the hours were awful, too. Want to eat after 9? Good luck. As a rebellious and independent teenager determined to make my own decisions in the college world, I went with the dining plan that offered the largest amount of free-floating "dining dollars" instead of going for the highly recommended unlimited dining plan. Those dining dollars went a long way for me, as I ended up spending nearly all of them at the on-campus Starbucks. In those seats, I made a lot of great friends, drank a lot of decent coffee, and developed a Starbucks twist on my perennial favorite: a (double-shot) dirty chai latte with soy milk, "no water". Why "no water"? Unlike my home coffee shop, which uses a powdered chai mix, Starbucks mixes a liquid chai tea blend with water before frothing the entire mixture with milk. Normally it's kind of flavorless, but if you ask them to hold the water, you end up with a drink that's actually delicious.
After freshman year, I mostly escaped the college's awful dining plans, and brokered access to rides in a friend's car to stock up on food, coffee, and milk for frothing. I also made one of the finest investments of my life: my first espresso machine.
Enter the Delonghi EC155. Stainless steel (some). Plastic (more). Pressurized baskets (though you can mod them to unpressurized). A frothing wand with a handicap. 15 bars of pressure that will vibrate damn near anything, including the espresso machine itself, off of vaguely smooth surfaces. A propensity to drip water and vent steam out of the frothing wand, the group head, and random places on the sides of the machine once it hits temperature. A stainless steel boiler of indeterminate size. No pressure gauge or built-in PID. Less than 2.6 inches of space for an espresso cup. No three-way solenoid, a drip tray that seems purpose-built to spill espresso runoff everywhere when you take it out to empty it (with a hole in the bottom, to boot, so anything you spill ends up on your counter under the machine). A pretty short cord, so you better have outlets above or right beneath your counter so you can actually plug it in. A built-in tamp that provides neither a good angle nor even enough pressure to properly tamp espresso. And of course, so little clearance beneath the frothing wand that you'll pretty much have to position the machine on the edge of a counter to avoid spilling milk everywhere when you try to get your frothing pitcher out from under the wand. But even more importantly, the EC155 is cheap, coming out to something like a fifth of the price of the next step up in espresso machine quality.
...It was love at first sight.
Never before had I owned my own espresso machine. Never before had I been able to put together a double shot when I first rolled out of bed with a college hangover. Never before had I been able to make 'spro bombs myself to keep college shenanigans going late into the wee hours of the morning. I practiced latte art, I developed my flavor palatte, and I had some great times with my college friends. My EC155 (or as I like to call her, "Spro") developed my love for coffee well past college and into adult life, where I learned to lean on Spro for my caffeine needs when I lived as cheaply as possible to pay off my student loans ASAP after college. Nearly a decade after first purchasing Spro, she's still serving me well as my travel/backup espresso machine -- I'm currently writing this post from my girlfriend's parents' house, where I'm staying for the entire holiday season (an espresso machine, of course, is essential to any good quarantine).
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Spro is no longer my primary espresso machine at home. I've upgraded to a Crossland CC1 , thanks to the many lessons that Spro taught me about what features matter in an espresso machine and which features you can do without. Which comes to the reason I wrote this post in the first place: sure, the EC155 isn't the best espresso machine in the world. It probably isn't even in most espresso fan's list of recommended home espresso machines. It's awful... in all the right ways. Using Spro almost every day for 5+ years taught me about what kind of grinder I want to use (turns out, I'm fine with using a manual grinder for the small amounts of coffee you need for espresso shots), about what convenience features are worth the investment (a three-way solenoid helps you avoid drippy, wet pucks after an espresso shot... and the splash those pucks create when you release pressure by removing the portafilter from the group head), and about my use case for espresso: one to three shots pulled per day, usually with milk.
Making an espresso every morning makes me happy, bringing back all the memories of working as a barista, of pulling espresso shots back in college, and of finally making it on my own as an adult after graduation. So if you're looking for a low-risk introduction to espresso, think about picking up:
Hell, you can even skip out on the grinder at first if you want and just buy pre-ground bags of espresso. Just get yourself your very own Spro and see how things go. Maybe you'll find your happy place too.