For five days after Thanksgiving, I toured Southern California with John Buckman, the head honcho at Decent Espresso. John and I did numerous machine demonstrations in San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles.
We’re grateful to all of the wonderful cafes that hosted our demonstrations. The cafes didn’t profit from the demos— they hosted us out of generosity and out of their support for a machine that has a chance of revolutionizing the way we make espresso. The enthusiasm and feedback at the demos was uniformly positive; the good vibes and hospitality I experienced made me proud to be in the coffee industry. Probably the best way to fall in love with the coffee industry is to attend events with other enthusiasts (it also helps to avoid most online coffee forums :0.)
John and I used the DE1+ for the demos. The machine comes with an Android tablet that displays real-time graphs of shot pressure, flow rate, and temperature (measured just above the dispersion screen). Watching the graphs during a shot is not just for entertainment— the insights they provide into espresso-making dynamics are revolutionary. If you’ve spent time with me, you know I’m not one for hyperbole; I’m much more comfortable with “under-promise and over-deliver”. When it comes to the DE1+, I’m not concerned about over-promising.
I’ve pulled perhaps 500,000 shots in my life and spent thousands of hours pondering espresso extraction, experimenting, and writing about it. Despite all of that, I’ve learned quite a bit about espresso preparation by watching the Decent’s graphs. I’m sure you will learn a lot, too (unless your name is Andy Schecter and you simply intuit coffee truths before anyone else.) I expect that every serious coffee company will one day use the DE1+PRO (the more powerful, plumbed-in version of the machine) as its “lab” espresso machine. The precision, feedback, and education it will provide make it the first serious candidate for a lab machine.
I’d like to share a few insights I gleaned from the DE1+ last week, and how they have made me a better barista.
Most espresso machines don’t offer proper preinfusion, and the popularity of non-preinfusing machines has baffled me for 20 years. The DE1+ allows the user to choose the flow rate of water entering the group head during preinfusion– this is easier and more precise than attempting to influence preinfusion time by adjusting water-line pressure. The DE1+ also shows the ramp up in back pressure caused by the puck’s water absorption during preinfusion. This smoothness of the pressure ramp is more telling than I would have every guessed. Setting preinfusion flow rate and seeing the pressure ramp allows a barista to “dial in” an optimal preinfusion cycle like never before.
Let me editorialize for a moment: preinfusion is the single most important capability an espresso machine can offer. No other feature is going to improve average shot quality as much. As I’ve written in my books, preinfusion improves consistency, decreases channeling and fines migration, increases extraction, and makes any baristas’ worst shots better. One problem with the typical preinfusion cycle is that it’s dumb— meaning there’s no feedback loop or adjustments to be made. Progressive preinfusion (i.e. E61, spring-loaded style) is better than manually controlled preinfusion, for the simple reason that it’s consistent and repeatable. Manual preinfusion allows a barista to adjust preinfusion time, but is difficult, if not impossible, to do so consistently in a busy cafe.
Every combination of portafilter basket, coffee, ground dose, bed depth in the basket, etc, will require a custom preinfusion time and will provide a unique amount of back pressure as preinfusion nears completion. Being able to control water flow during preinfusion, and then to see when and how the pressure rises near the end of preinfusion, provides a level of control and precision never achieved before.
Channeling during preinfusion
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned that week came from watching the pressure curve ramp up during preinfusion. The smoothness of the Decent’s pressure curve as it ramps up indicates the quality of grounds distribution and the degree of channeling. Think about that: you can pull a shot and see how well you distributed the grounds. Given that the most important skill a barista can have when making espresso is to distribute the grounds evenly in the basket, this is revolutionary. Want to know which distribution method (i.e. Stockfleth’s, using a dosing tool, tapping the basket a particular way, etc) works best for you? The machine will tell you. Want to train a new barista in good distribution? There’s nothing like instant, accurate feedback to help someone improve his or her skills rapidly.
Here’s a one-minute video of the DE1+ in action, with real-time flow, pressure, and temperature graphs. Please forgive the video quality; I made it on my iPhone during a noisy demo. Note the short dip in the green pressure curve at around 12 seconds on the shot timer–that indicates a small channel that formed and “fixed itself.”
I was fascinated, but not surprised, during many shots to see how much clumped grounds caused channeling during the pressure ramp, and also later in shots. Using a DE1+ may convince you to sell your Robur E or other doserless clump creator, er, I mean grinder. :0. If you don’t want to sell it, at least consider mount a dosing chamber on it to help break up clumps.
In a future post we’ll talk about other lessons learned from the DE1+ and we’ll analyze some shot graphs. The data in those graphs is a whole new view on espresso, something I’ve taken to calling “Cropster for espresso.”
Until then, thanks for reading, and say hi in the comments box.