January 2021 Coffee Mailbag

Welcome to our first edition of the coffee mailbag.

The coffee mailbag is a place where we answer some of your most pressing questions using our expertise and offering the best advice possible. To be included in our mailbag, send us an email and we’ll do our best to answer any coffee related questions you may have!

What’s your opinion: Sage Barista Express OR Smaller machine and separate grinder equaling same price?

You should choose a machine and grinder separately. This is because most “all-in-one” machines lack a quality grinder, and you will likely be interested in upgrading either over time. Sage make very good machines but they fall short in longevity when compared to prosumer grade espresso machines.

Where a prosumer machine may last 10+ years, many Sage products have issues after around 5 years (which is still very good). They are sometimes more difficult to repair as well. Sage however has excellent customer service. Entry level machines I would suggest include the Sage Bambino and Gaggia Classic Pro.

These machines will perform well with good entry level grinders and will also still make great espresso with higher end grinders. Entry level grinders I would suggest include the Baratza Sette 270 and the Eureka Mignon series. Best of luck in your new hobby!

I recently bought some Green Yemeni Beans and was disappointed with the flavour. I noticed the beans are smaller than normal, does that indicate a problem?

Yemen coffee is grown at very high altitude in near draught conditions and tend to be smaller and more dense. Almost all coffee from Yemen is natural/dry processed using centuries old processes, methods, and equipment, and it’s very common to find a large variance in sizes and shapes, and occasional stones.

In the past, it was common to combine coffee from previous harvests if they were unable to get their coffee to market. There has been an effort in recent years to improve the growing and processing methods to help farmers but the ongoing conflict has hampered results.

Yemen coffee can be fantastic when processed properly, but it will be expensive, and you won’t find it commercially. It’s best to buy from a reputable importer and/or distributor.

Do you know if the weight loss of a Robusta is different to the weight loss of an Arabica at a comparable roast level?

It should be similar. Weight loss is dependent on moisture content of the coffee and degree of roast. Most coffee is dried to approximately 10-12%.

What would you say is the most “professional” home roaster?

I would say the SR800. I learned on a 1920 Probat so it was all sight, smell, and sound. Instead of a tester, I can just look inside the extension tube for colour, the sounds come through just fine as well as the smells. That’s why I upgraded to it from the SR540. VERY reminiscent of my old roasting days (and, at 8 ounces, 2 batches at a time works perfectly for me).

Is the Baratza Encore Grinder good for espresso?

The encore can typically grind fine enough for espresso on a Gaggia. The problem is adjustability. Over its range, for a given set of beans, there may be only one or two grind settings that are usable for espresso.

Once you have found this setting, you are then forced to use dose and brew ratio to dial in a shot to optimise its taste. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and when done right, you should typically be able to get a good-tasting shot with almost any beans.

BUT… In a situation like this, your grind setting largely drives dose and ratio, giving only a narrow range of usable tasty combinations. Most of the grinders preferred for espresso are either step-less, or are designed so that the usable number of steps for espresso is very high.

This allows you to brew shots with a very wide range of doses and ratios that opens up a whole world of different flavours and shot experiences from a single set of beans. For instance: with a given set of beans, one combination that I like is a 15g Ristretto shot, with a 25g output pulled over a ~25s duration.

Another totally different experience, and actually my preferred shot with the same beans, is a 9g Lungo shot with 35g output pulled over 30 seconds. I am able to get these variations – and many more in between – because my grinder (a Eureka Mignon Filtro) is step-less and continuously variable over the range of espresso grind levels.

Now with a totally different approach to grinding – the Baratza Sette 270 is stepped, but gives small enough increments in grind level as to be even easier to use over a wide range of espresso grind settings than my Mignon.

The big difference between both of these grinders and the encore is this ability to be able to set a grind level that allows you to get the most from your beans. Now, if you just want to use supermarket beans to give a consistent and usable base for a latte then an Encore should be good enough.

But if you want to enjoy espresso and explore different flavours and experiences from a wider range of beans, then you would realistically need a grinder upgrade.