The GroupHead Files Part I: Do I need to buy a grinder?
I have a confession to make: I am the owner of a steam driven “espresso machine”. After a few years of deluding myself into thinking it’s producing good coffee, I’ve awoken from my coffee coma and seen the light – I need a real espresso machine! I’ve done some research and I’m pretty set on the Gaggia Classic, but now I’m wondering if I need to upgrade my grinder too. The grinder I have has 18 grind settings and I was using a “2” setting to get “good” results from my steam toy. I can’t really spend the extra money right now, but am I going to be up the creek without a paddle if I don’t get something better? What do I do?
Helpless in PA
From the GroupHead:
First off, congrats on your decision to upgrade. As I’m sure you already know, steam driven machines don’t technically produce espresso – they brew at too high a temperature (around 212ºF versus a “true” espresso machine’s 190-195ºF) and too low a pressure (about 2 –3 BAR compared to 8-9) to make the legendary brew. Luckily, you’ve already figured out that there’s something better out there, so you’re well on your way to espresso nirvana.
As for your grinder question, you’re not the first to ask it, and I can guarantee you won’t be the last. The scenario is all too familiar: you’re ready to plunk down some serious change for a fab espresso machine (the Classic is a great pick, by the way) and then there’s that nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that your current grinder just might not be up to snuff. Well, as is usually the case in these types of situations, that nagging voice is right – no matter how much you may want to deny it.
Now I do need to give you some kudos here, because judging from the whole “18 grind settings” thing, you already have a burr grinder, and you value the higher-quality flavor you get from freshly ground beans. I know it’s probably a great grinder that’s gotten you through thick and thin, but the fact of the matter is you’re movin’ on up to an espresso machine that just won’t be compatible with it. Why won’t it be compatible? Two words: the portafilter. If you were planning on a machine that had a pressurized style portafilter, I would say go for it. But the Classic has a commercial style portafilter – which is exactly as heavy-duty as it sounds – and commercial style portafilters need a level of control over the grind that you can only get from a higher-quality burr grinder, hands down, no exceptions.
As you can probably tell, I’m endorsing the “new grinder” side of the argument. But just because you’ll need the grinder doesn’t mean you don’t have options. The first, which is probably the most annoying and painful, is to wait on the whole shebang, buy the machine and grinder (at least the Gaggia MDF or Rancilio Rocky) together, and suffer through a few more paychecks with the steam toy. I know you don’t want to wait; you’ve seen better coffee and you want to get it as quickly as possible. But also keep in mind that you when you buy them together, you can get a base and a whole bunch of other goodies at a rockin’ discount.
Second option: instant gratification. Just bite the bullet and spend the dough now. Like I just said, we have some pretty great deals. So although you’ll feel the monetary pinch for a little while, you’ll be very well caffeinated at the same time.
Your third option is a sort of compromise between the other two. You can go ahead and purchase the Classic now and then wait on the grinder, but – and this is a big “but” – you’ll have to be willing to trade off some of your espresso’s quality in return. If you want, you can try using the grinder you already have, but there is a pretty significant downside to that. Using too coarse a grind will result in really fast shots that A: have almost no crema, and B: taste pretty similar to what you’re getting from your steam driven machine. This is mainly because the coarse grind doesn’t allow pressure to build up properly in the group head, thus resulting in brewing with 2-3 BAR of pressure that you’re trying to avoid by upgrading in the first place.
So now that we’ve ruled the grinder out, option 3 boils down to 2 sub-options. The first is to buy Lavazza in Blu. From all the preground coffees we’ve tried, in Blu performs the best in commercial style portafilters, but again, won’t give you the great results you’ll get from a coffee ground only moments before brewing. Sub-option 2 involves truckin’ it down to the local coffee shop, purchasing whole beans there, and having them grind it for you in house. Start with a small amount – maybe ½ lb. if they have it – and have them split it into 3 bags. Let them know you want the first bag ground at the setting they use for their espresso machines, the second bag at the grind setting above that, and the third at the setting below. Make sure you label all the bags so you know what’s what and then test each grind out on your Classic. If one of them works perfectly, ask for that grind the next time. If none of them works well (using the Golden Rule as your guide, of course), take note of whether your shots are running fast or slow and have them adjust the grind accordingly the next time you buy coffee.
Now, before you jump on the coffee shop bandwagon, keep in mind that this isn’t failsafe either. You’ll want to take a good look at how their shots are brewing before you ask for beans ground at their setting. Speaking from unfortunate experience, there are a lot of coffee shops out there that still think the Golden Rule is about etiquette rather than espresso, so you’ll need to do a little investigative work before handing over your hard-earned dough and your precious coffee beans. If their shots are running fast, ask for a finer setting than they normally use and vice versa. Otherwise you’re going to be back and forth and back and forth from home and the espresso shop to dial in their grinder.
Obviously, option 3 can end up being quite a bit more time consuming and costly than options 1 or 2, and you’ll also be compromising quality because you’re using preground coffee. Not to mention the fact that you will have spent a decent chunk of change on an awesome espresso machine that you won’t be using to its fullest potential. But if you really can’t spring for the new grinder, you’re more likely to get a good shot with Lavazza in Blu or the coffee shop trial-and-error method than with a grinder that just isn’t Classic-worthy.
To learn more about grinders, the Gaggia Classic, and more, simply follow the links below:
Coffee Grinder Buying Guide
The Golden Rule
Gaggia Classic & MDF Package
Rancilio Rocky Doserless