Bezerra Strega

Last December, I bought a Bezerra Strega home espresso machine for my office after not having an espresso machine for a number of years. Back with Flying Five Coffee, we had a Synesso, which I consider one of the best commercial espresso machines in the world, and I just couldn’t bring myself to go backwards to older less precise machines.

The Strega has rescued me from the espresso doldrums. It’s a “prosumer” lever machine that combines the old-school lever with some new-school features that gives temperature-stable commercial machines a run for their money.

The thing I really enjoy about the Strega is that it enables you to just use the machine and enjoy the benefits of great espresso without needing to go overboard in technical details. This is something that I’m very prone to do. In just using the machine normally, you’ll be reaping the benefits of good-enough temperature stability and modern pressure-profiling of the extraction.

If you read the Strega thread on home-barista, you might be intimidated about the technical detail discussed there and think that it’s complex to learn and use. I don’t think this is the case. Even when I was just starting out with the Strega, I had immediate good results with it.

Initially, you can just turn on the Strega, let it warm up for 20-25 minutes, grind, tamp and extract. The Strega is always in the right temperature ballpark for good extraction, and just “going for it” and pulling shots works very well. You’ll have great espresso pretty much immediately.

But, as always with espresso, careful attention to detail always improves things. I’ve learned some things over the last 9 months from reading the home-barista thread and from experimenting. Here’s how I use my Strega now:

First, I turn it on just 10-15 minutes before I want some espresso: it heats up really quickly, which I absolutely love. There’s nothing that bothers me more than waiting around when I’m ready for espresso!

Once I hear a short hiss from the machine (which is the vacuum breaker sealing), I wait about a minute more and then pull about 10 seconds of water by pulling the lever down, and then I raise the lever very slightly to stop the vibe pump. I do this to hold some of the  hot water up in the piston to warm it up. This is optional, and is just a time saver: it cuts a decent bit of time off the warm-up time.

Then, I grind and tamp 18g of espresso at 35 lbs. pressure. Before I put the portafilter in, I do a very short cooling flush with the lever: just long enough to release any pressure that’s built up in the line. Then, I put the portafilter in and pull the lever all the way down.

This engages the vibration pump, which fills the piston with water and starts pre-infusion. I let this go until the sound of the vibe pump changes, or espresso starts to drip out. Then, I release the lever and let it extract.

You can steam milk at any time: the Strega is a heat-exchanger.

For me, the result is quality espresso that I really enjoy. I’ve even been having fun pulling the same espresso from the Strega that I can get at shops in Denver out of Synesso’s and comparing the taste differences. Amazingly, the Strega stays neck-and-neck with its commercial counterparts.

Bodum Pavina Glasses

I’ve been using Bodum Pavina double-walled glasses for a number of years now. Actually, we sold these way back with Flying Five Coffee, so that means I’ve been using them since at least 2007/2008. I think these glasses are great, and not just because they look cool.

They’re hand-blown double-walled borosilicate glass. The obvious advantage of the double-walled glass is that it insulates the hot coffee from your hand. While this is a fantastic feature, I think there’s another more interesting advantage to this: you can control how the coffee cools.

One of the many things I love about drinking single origin coffees is how the flavor changes as the coffee cools down. With a “normal” cup, this is a passive journey. With the double-walled glasses, you can control the cooling somewhat. What I like to do is to blow across the top to cool the coffee and taste as I go. When I find a taste that I’m particularly enjoying, I’ll stop and pause for a while, and the insulating double-walled glass lets me linger on that taste for a while. Then, I’ll go find another one.

Not to say that a passive journey in a normal cup isn’t a good thing – I enjoy that too. It’s just that it’s also fun to be able to control it and linger on interesting tastes.

Even before I found these glasses, I’ve always gone out of my way to drink coffee out of glass glasses. Call me crazy, but I just think coffee and espresso just taste better out of glass. It’s well accepted that coffee tastes better when you don’t put it in a to-go cup but drink it in a porcelain cup at the coffee shop. For me, it’s the same sort of analogy: I can’t exactly say why, but for me coffee in a glass just tastes better.

Finally, the hand-blown glass just looks and feels cool. Bodum did a really nice job with the Pavina glasses. It’s somewhat magical to see your coffee hovering above the “bottom” of the glass, and it’s always fun to watch the coffee brewing into the cup. The insulating walls make it very comfortable to grip the glasses without a handle, and the curve of the Pavina fits well in your hand.

Yes, they occasionally break: they’re glass. But, for me it’s worth it.

Moka Pot Brewing

The Moka Pot doesn’t get mentioned too often as a brewing method of choice for quality coffee. It’s not in the same company as V60 pour-overs, Chemexs, French Presses, Aeropresses, or other single serve approaches for those of us obsessed with finding fun quality brewing methods. But, I’ve found there’s some very interesting tastes to be found with Moka Pots.

Many times, people call Moka Pots “Stovetop Espresso Machines,” which isn’t strictly true. The steam pressure only creates a bar or two of pressure, whereas espresso machines extract at 9 bars. So, Moka Pots are really their own category of extraction at medium pressure.

I believe I might have a slight advantage in using Moka Pots – I live in Colorado at about 5400 ft. where the boiling temperature is 204 ºF. Moka Pots use steam pressure created by boiling water in a pressurized lower container to force water up through a pipe into a bed of grounds above. Many times, this water is super-heated above boiling and extracts a scalded, bitter taste: a result of extraction at too high a temperature. Here at altitude, though, I suspect the lower boiling temperature might make Moka Pots extract in the range of good coffee brewing – typically pegged at 195 – 205 ºF.

In case anyone wants to give the method I use a try, here’s what I do. I jump through a few hoops to avoid heating the grounds for a long time, and also shoot for a relatively slow extraction. I also take pains to only extract about 2 oz., and not let super-heated steam go through the Moka Pot at the end. Finally, I’ve settled on one drink that I make with the Moka Pot, that for me creates a really interesting drink with origin flavors.

Here’s my sequence:

1. I boil water in the bottom half of the Moka Pot without the top half not connected. Ie, I’m avoiding heating up the grounds for a long time while the water boils.

2. While the water is boiling, I put 1-2 Tbsp of half and half or cream in the upper half of the chamber. I’m making a sort of very short breve I suppose with this if you use espresso terms. I have a friend that calls this drink a “Breve Macchiato.” By putting it in the top half of the chamber, it lets the cream or 1/2 and 1/2 heat up during the extraction.

3. When the water boils, I turn off the heat, and use pot holders to assemble the Moka Pot, putting the grounds into the holder. This isn’t the most elegant process and requires some practice, but I think it’s worth it.

4. I then start the extraction on the tiny “simmer burner” on my stove. Am I the only one who pretty much never uses this burner? It doesn’t produce any heat and it’s way in the back, almost as if it’s embarrassed to be a stove burner. But, it’s perfect for a Moka Pot. I keep the heat pretty low: only about to 6 on my burner (which goes up to 10).

5. It takes about 30s-60s before any “espresso” comes out, and it bubbles out slowly. I keep the heat low, and sometimes back off just a tad. When about 1.5-2 oz have come out in about 30-45s, I turn off the heat and immediately pour into my cup. I usually judge the amount of extraction by the color as it comes out and mixes with the cream or 1/2 and 1/2.

The result is an espresso-looking creamy drink that doesn’t taste like espresso. I’ve been focusing on single origins with this lately, and different interesting origin notes come out of this method than pour-overs or French Presses. This year, I’ve been on a Honduras kick, which has yielded some really interesting fruity tastes. In the past, Yirgacheffe’s have yielded amazing flavor combinations.

Can the Moka Pot keep company with the V60s and Chemexs of the quality coffee brewing world? I’d say that it’s worth a look and taste.

Crema Coffee, Denver CO

I hadn’t been into Crema for a few weeks when I finally stopped back in last week. I should go more often: Crema is one of my favorites. There didn’t used to be much in the way of quality coffee on the Front Range, and Crema was one of the first places in Denver doing a great job with quality coffee. 

When I walked through the door, I was surprised to see the trademark plywood wall with the menu on it gone. They knocked out the wall and expanded back, which adds some welcome elbow room and some more seating. Fortunately, the addition doesn’t really change the feel of the place. It’s still all about the coffee, and feels a bit hip-grungy in a good way.

As far as I can tell, Crema was the first in Denver to do a second rotating espresso, which is a tradition that I love. You can try a cycle of different roasters this way, and compare different tastes from around the country. They always have Herkimer as their regular espresso, and rotate through Intelligensia, Counter Culture, Victrola, Dogwood, Novo and others on the 2nd.

They have French Press single origins, and with the extra room, they’ve also added a V60 pour-over bar as well. Like the espresso, it’s a rotating selection from different roasters.

There’s a food angle here also that I haven’t delved into too much – I always go for the coffee. But, I’ve seen some tasty looking things coming out of the kitchen. Some of that goes to the coffee side as well: they make their own vanilla and chocolate syrups. My wife had an outstanding mocha with their home-made chocolate syrup. And, the vanilla gets a big thumbs up from my 6-year-old. I suspect he’s as picky about his steamed milks as I am about my coffee.

So, when I went in last week and tried their latest rotating espresso, and saw the addition, I was initially worried that Crema’s vibe and quality might be undermined. By the end of my Cortado and a fun coffee conversation with the Barista though, I was re-assured. It’s the same old Crema, just with a bit more room.

Metropolis Coffee, Denver CO

I find it amazing how different various coffee shops feel. On the surface, they’re all the same: they all have an espresso machine, seating, cream and napkin station, etc. But, every single one has its own character and feel. Some I walk into and want to turn around immediately. Some I walk into and am immediately at home in.

Metropolis in lower Highlands is one of those places that for some almost intangible reason just has a great feel to me. It’s very cleanly designed, but with warm wood tones and great coffee-related decorations.

I’m a sucker for all-things coffee, so the old retired Mazzer grinders as decoration on one wall, and the selection of various pour overs methods on the other reels me in. I enjoyed thumbing through coffee-industry magazines while drinking my Cortado. I’m probably only one of a few people that would even care about this, but I love that they feature their water filtration system: it’s in a picture frame on the wall.

But, really, for me it’s about the coffee, and Metropolis delivers. They have a Synesso and Chemex pour over, and do an excellent job with their chosen roaster: Herkimer from Seattle. Herkimer does quality coffee very well, in my opinion. Shockingly, on a recent trip, their decaf espresso was bursting with fruit and chocolate notes. In fact, I’d say that my wife’s decaf Cortado was more interesting and complex than my regular Cortado. That doesn’t happen: decaf espresso is extremely difficult to do well. So, big kudos to both Herkimer and Metropolis for presenting an outstanding decaf espresso.

I didn’t get much detailed commentary, but my son’s vanilla steamed milk disappeared in near-record time. And, usually, any commentary from him isn’t a good thing.

Metropolis also has a Golden Triangle location with a different (but also great) feel, and the same excellent coffee. I’d suggest stopping by and taking in the great atmosphere and coffee any chance you get.

Little Owl Coffee, Denver CO

Little Owl Coffee is a great new coffee shop in LoDo. They’re packed into a small space with only a few seats inside, and some nice patio seating. But, what they’re doing is anything but small.

The space feels great inside – don’t be dissuaded by the small size. They serve Counter Culture for espresso, pour-over and aeropress. They have a La Marzocco Strada for espresso, which in my book is right up there with a Synesso Hyrda as the current two top machines for espresso. I’ll stop myself before I drone on about the relative merits of pressure profiling and temperature stability, but suffice it to say that among the recent espressos I like the most, they seem to be coming out of these two machines.

I stopped in there with my family a few weekends ago, and everything was excellent: Cortado, decaf Cortado, decaf Latte and a kid’s vanilla steamed milk. And, despite us coming in right before they were closing, they were outgoing and friendly and went out of their way to make us feel welcome and not rushed.

On their menu, they list their espresso drinks and also list out the amount of espresso and milk in each one. For example, an espresso is listed as 2/0 espresso/milk, a Cortado as 2/2, a Cappucino as 2/4 and a Latte as 2/10. I’ve never seen a shop do this before, and I love it.

So, I’d recommend taking the time to find Little Owl in LoDo, the latest addition to the excellent Denver coffee scene.

Cortado

The Cortado is my favorite espresso drink. For me, it captures all that I love about drinking espresso, and does so elegantly and succinctly.

It could be because I made up the drink. Well, at least at one time I thought I did. Back when Flying Five Coffee was in it’s hey-day and I was spending a lot of time experimenting with different espresso drinks, I found that the drink I loved the most was a ratio of 1:1 espresso to micro-foamed milk. I’d never seen that before.

But, of course there is nothing new under the sun, and soon after I heard of this drink floating around San Francisco called a “Gilbraltar”, named after the rocks glass it was served in. And, later still, I learned that a Cortado has been around for quite some time.

What makes a Cortado so great? For me, it’s a combination of many factors. The 1:1 ratio creates a pleasing balance between espresso and milk. The sweetness of the milk can bring out flavor notes in a great espresso that you wouldn’t taste in a straight espresso. But, there isn’t so much milk that it overpowers the espresso. And, finally, I love that there’s nowhere to hide for the espresso: greatness and defects in the espresso are front and center.

Many times a Cortado is an “insider” drink. It’s not always on the menu, and it can be tough to find. But, often times, if you ask for it, good baristas will know what it is, or be able to make it with a description of the 1:1 ratio. Happily, in the last few years around Denver and Boulder, the Cortado has shown up on the menu of many good shops.

So, for me, my go-to espresso drink is a Cortado, it’s my hands-down favorite. After all, I invented it. At least I thought I did.