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Espresso: The Romance Factor

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While no one was looking and under the cover of darkness, the magnificent Italian hand-built La Marzocca machines were replaced, one by one, with fully automatic computerized press-a-button versions. This took place in thousands of Starbucks across the land. This is the day when the romance and theater of Starbucks died.

This disturbing trend is taking place on many levels of society. Many argue that removing the human (error) factor makes for a more consistent product and increased customer satisfaction. Really though, truth be told, it is because of training costs, speed of service, and efficiency. These are not bad things in themselves from an overly worked barista’s point of view. The solution for a busy store is to have two to four machines and double the staff, like they do in Buenos Aires. Really, they do. However, they are ignoring the romantic factor. Where is the romance and theater of pushing a button? Where is the skill and passion of the barista?

BialettiFor a quick lesson in romance, look to the humble Volturno. One of the things the Italians brought with them to Argentina was the little stove stop espresso maker (made internationally famous by Bialleti). While not true espresso, and I am not comparing it to espresso, it deserves a place in every coffee lover’s arsenal. We brought ours back from Buenos Aires, a national brand called Volturno. Although it mostly gets used when we travel, there is still many a day when we opt for the intense room-filling aroma and the seductive whisper it makes when it’s ready.

Where Bialetti has compromised to appease the North-American hordes by making a stainless version, the humble Volturno still uses the time honored and tested traditional aluminum, which gets better with age. Simply follow a few simple rules handed down from the old Italian bubbas.

First, you need to condition the pot before use by brewing a pot with just water, then a second time with coffee that you leave sitting overnight. The second rule is to never wash the inside with soap; just rinse with hot water and air-dry. This way you do not disturb the coating left by the oils in the coffee.

Lastly, you want to pile the slightly coarser-than-espresso grind coffee in a mound with the peak passing the top of the filter basket. This way the coffee will be compressed to just the right amount for optimum extraction.

While these basic rules seem to defy normal coffee logic, in the Volturno they are unexplainable work. Enter the romance factor. While producing good coffee is based on scientific principals, fully automatic press-a-button espresso machines can never compute nor replicate the romance (human) factor.

Those old Italian bubbas know best. Please leave button pushing to accountants and Starbucks baristas. Stay original – it's only human.

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About Bill Soukoreff

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    While in my heart, I agree with you, having owned two Solis Master 5000 units, the truth is that this machine, which grinds and tamps the beans, makes espresso as good as I’ve had anywhere, here or in Europe.

    I bought the new one on a lark because it had the self-grinding feature, but you can dial it up for just very strong coffee & still get a beautiful crema on top.

    They’re expensive $550+, but they’re made for everyday use. I was burning out the other push button machines at about a once a year rate. My first Solis I gave to my sister-in-law because I just had to have the newer version. Both are still going strong–hers is about 10 years old, mine is about 7.

    But, to be honest, I used to own bialettis and loved the coffee.

    Chacun a son gout!

    In Jameson Veritas

  • Bill Soukoreff

    Yes, some all in one push button can make a decent espresso. However they cannot make a truly great espresso. Your Solis can out brew Starbucks any day of the week!

    However, the week link in any fully auto machine is in the quality of the grind (and in the Barrista of course!). The only variable that should be adjusted in producing fantastic espresso is the grind. The tamping pressure should always be consistent, as with the pump pressure and the temperature. To vary the length of a shot, you need to make tiny adjustments to the grind; either finer or coarser.

    Only a good quality step-less grinder can accomplish this. (For the home this means a grinder that costs as much as your Solis) The grind in the morning may be slightly different from the grind in the afternoon due to humidity changes and other variables. I have yet to see a all in one push button machine incorporate a quality true step-less grinder.

    All of this may seem a bit fanatic for most people. But once you have a had a perfect shot of espresso, there is no turning back!

    The problem is most people have never tasted good espresso. It should be sweet with nice caramel notes. If you need to add sugar, it is not good espresso. The machines and espresso Starbucks now use is perfect for making drinks with large quantities of milk. Their espresso is almost undrinkable in it’s pure form.

    As I said, the Italian stove top is not espresso, it is really 3 times strong coffee. But it has it’s own romance and purpose, as does the French press and the vacuum system. I like to try a new coffee with all brewing processes to get a full profile of the coffee. Each method brings out a different nuance of the coffee.

  • Leslie Bohn

    I now have a stainless Bialetti stovetop screwtop as my main coffee maker after a long time using aluminum ones. I like the stainless, because, frankly, I disagree that the brown buildup on my old ones is at all beneficial. The presence of old oils is a negative, to me, and the old, dirty little thing just used to gross me out. Now I wipe the inside clean with a towel and rinse it out and it’s completely spotless, so there are no old oils to heat up and get bitter. I drink it like a macchiato, usually, with like a splash of hot milk.
    It’s also good to make Vietnamese iced coffee, which I really love.

    My old roommate had a Solis 5000, and this fact made him the world’s greatest roommate, never mind the sock odor and the money he still owes me. I begged him not to get married and take away my coffee. My wedding present to him was a gleaming new Bialetti screwtop 6-cup model, but he didn’t go for leaving his coffee machine behind.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    Jane, you ignorant slut. I mean Bill. (That’s what you get when you mess with the politico types…can you name who said it, to whom & why…where was I?)

    Oh yeah, I’m sorry, Charlie, but I’ve had espresso all over the world in Michelin 3-star restaurants and in the best little bistros in France and Italy. I’ll stack my Solis against them any day of the year.

    I maintain, sir, that you have not tasted espresso from a well-handled Solis 5000. You are welcome here anytime to sip the light fantastic and eat your words.

    In Jameson Veritas

    To compare my love, my beauty to Starbucks is to reveal your total lack of appreciation for the true espresso. Sugar? To bring it up demonstrates your lack of savior faire. Lemon rinds? I’m sure you ring your coffee cup with those little pieces of twisted fruit.

  • STM

    It wouldn’t matter what Starbucks used to make a coffee, it’d still be lousy IMO. Sadly (even more so since it’s their core business), they just don’t know how to make a decent coffee. Their machines could be gold-plated Lavazzas or Saecos with all the bells and whistles, and it’d still taste like someone had added boiled or over-heated milk (a real no-no) to instant coffee.

    ‘Course, that’s only my view; I’m sure they appeal to some tastes.

  • Bill Soukoreff

    The Solis 5000 is a respectable machine that makes good drinks for busy people with little effort. If you like it, that’s great. I would rather take the E61 brew group and a Mazer Mini stepless. It’s not easy, it’s not cheap, it’s borderline obsessive, wonderfully romantic and it’s capable of producing God shots.

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro Nicolo

    The Italians still make great “automatic” machines. Saeco, La Pavoni, Oesteria, Faema etc. I own a Saeco as well as several “cafetieri’s.” My mother even has the classic Neopolitain one which makes an even better coffee.

    The “cafetieri” has been around many Italian households forever. They are part of the kitchen landscape. So when I saw the picture on the piece it made me laugh. For some odd reason, on Sunday’s we don’t use the machine after a lunch. We go old style – as do my cousins in the old country. The volturno still has relevance and a place at the table in so many places around the world that has a strong espresso culture.

    Incidentally, Alessi make stainless steal versions too. Regardless, they don’t make the “crema” (golden cream we all look for in an good espresso) however, there are versions of them that do (I own one). If you want one, many Italian specialty shops sell pressurized Volturno’s/cafetieri’s – not to mention other styles.

    As for Starbuck’s, they never trained their worker’s on how to use the machines properly anyway – hence no matter how good the quality of their beans may be their espresso’s are not properly done.

    Here’s my suggestion for a coffee: if you are ever in Italy or a food trade show seek a coffee called Pellini. Brilliant. With this piece, I’m off to injest my 5th espresso for the day – thanks, Bill.

  • Bill Soukoreff

    Alessandro, thanks for the tip. Pellini is on my list. Currently, I enjoy Intelligentsia Black Cat as my staple espresso. It’s sad, when Starbucks started out, they prided themselves in their barrista training. When they went public, it all went downhill. They did however raise the awareness of espresso and better coffee in places that were former coffee wastelands (like western Canada). So I will always appreciate that about them. Now Peets is expanding and I fear they will meet the same fate.

  • http://www.friendlymisanthropist.blogspot.com alessandro Nicolo

    Let me know what you think of Pellini. As for IBC, do they sell that in Canada? Always on the look out for new espresso.

  • Bill Soukoreff

    Yeah, if you live in Canada you can have it shipped direct to your door from http://www.caffetech.com based in Edmonton, Alberta. It was $45.00 per 6 1/2 lbs for the longest time, which was a steal. Now it is $51.00 and a flat rate of $12.00 for shipping anywhere in Canada. Still a pretty fair deal. The quality is outstanding. You will not be disappointed. While you are at their site check out their Quick Mill line of home machines. Nice stuff. They work closely with Chris Coffee in the states, so there prices are often lower than I have seen in Canada.

  • Giuliana S

    This Ital/American has and loves her two aluminum Bialettis, a single cupper, and a three cup. WHen I use them my kitchen smells just like my Italian grandmother’s.