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Major coffee equipment upgrade

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on the East Coast of America, which is home to many great things but sadly in the Boston suburbs, good coffee isn’t one of them. In Boston the main coffee chain is Dunkin’ Donuts, a shop that likes to market itself as a coffee house but in reality its coffee is of extremely poor quality.

For the last few years, at home, I’ve been using my Isomac Tea II and Rancillo Rocky coffee machine/grinder combo with average results. The Rocky is a fine grinder but it isn’t a very good espresso grinder – there is a lot of clumping and with a naked portafilter you can see lots of channelling, even after a vigorous shake of the grinds with a kebab stick. Anyhow here in Boston I decided to upgrade; big time.

For reference an Isomac Tea II is an E61 heat exchanger with a vibration pump. What this means is that it uses a heat exchanger to provide both hot water and steam at the same time. The group head is a Faema E61, or a replica of it. The E61 grouphead was the first to allow automatic pre-infusion. This is the stage prior to the actual coffee extraction where the coffee grounds are wetted to expand and fill the portafilter. After a certain amount of time, water pressure is increased and extraction begins. The E61 grouphead was nothing short of revolutionary and even today it is a truly outstanding bit of mechanical engineering, plus it looks superb. (There are also downsides to the E61, chiefly temperature stability and the need to do a cooling flush prior to the first extraction, but everything in engineering has up-sides and down-sides).

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So what did I upgrade to? The grand-daddy of all the setups – a La Marzocco GS3/1 Mechanical Paddle coffee machine and a Compak K10 Fresh grinder. This is pretty much the dream setup for the home – some would say a Mazzer Robur E is better than the Compak but personally I preferred the electronic controls of the K10 Fresh and the fact that I could get it with a short hopper from Chris’ Coffee in New York.

I’m actually writing this post after using this set up for a month, so hopefully the honeymoon period is well and truly over. Couple of points to get out of the way – I don’t have buyer’s remorse, though spending so much money on a coffee setup obviously isn’t for everyone and I had been eyeing (and saving up) this for well over a year. Secondly, make sure you have space, conical burr grinders such as the K10 Fresh and Mazzer Robur are much bigger than you would think, especially in a home kitchen.

So how is it to live with such a coffee set up? Well, it is much easier to pull high quality espresso shots. I could make nice espresso on and off with my previous Rancillo Rocky/Isomac Tea II setup but my consistency is far better with the new set up. Secondly, good quality espresso grinders (not just the K10 Fresh) removes “channelling”. I wasn’t forced to make any changes to my technique except that I no longer have to prod the grinds with a kebab skewer to “fluff them up”.

The Compak K10 Fresh still produces some clumping, though the clumps themselves are smaller and lighter. It should also be noted that conical burr grinders of this size need a fair amount of beans to go through them before the burrs are seasoned. I effectively wasted around 4KG of beans before I started using the grinder for actual drinking coffee though some people say you need a lot more than that.

As for the GS3/1, the machine is extremely well built and the mechanical paddle is something that not only adds to the tactile feel of making coffee, it allows you to experiment in the future with altering the pressure during the pour – something known as “flavour profiling”. The steam wand is nothing short of sensational – taking less than five seconds to stretch a small pitcher of cold milk. And finally the drip tray is large enough for a good amount of shots being pulled before you need to take it out. That said taking the tray out isn’t quite as slick as it should be, and frankly is quite tedious.

I would definitely recommend those that can, to plumb in the GS3/1. As I am currently in rented accommodation this isn’t viableĀ  – though not impossible. One thing I would say is that not having to the E61 cooling flush is very nice and saves a lot of time if you have to pull a few shots in a row.

As for my Rocky/Tea II set up, that is in London for whenever I go back there to spend a few weeks over there.