Monday, July 07, 2008

Old School Coffee Making

While in Seattle, I got to have some very very good espresso drinks - probably the best I've ever had - at Espresso Vivace. The friends I travelled with have some very nice coffee making equipment at home and have been experimenting with reproducing the drinks we savored at Vivace. Lately I've been greatly enjoying these home brewed espresso drinks whenever I visit these friends. After building up a nice addiction to these tasty treats, I finally decided to try my hand at making the drinks at my own home.

Unfortunately, the equipment usually used for making espresso is not cheap. Most coffee fan sites (such as Coffee Geek) recommend to get good results you need a good grinder and a good espresso machine. While "good" is a relative term, it is generally recommended you spend several hundred dollars on a grinder and a similar price (or more) on the actual espresso machine. The gadgeteer in me was tempted to go this route and splurge, spending close to $1000 on top of the line equipment, but I really had a hard time justifying such a pricey expenditure. Sure, in the long run it would be cheaper than going to a coffee shop every day, but I don't really do that anyhow, and for something I'd realistically use only a few times a week, it seemed a bit extravagant. So, I researched some alternatives.

Instead of an expensive electric grinder, I found a wooden hand grinder made in Germany by Zassenhaus. It allows fine control of the grinding of beans producing a range from course grinds for drip coffee to fine grinds for espresso. It costs a fraction of the price of a good electric grinder and you even get the benefit of some arm exercise.

While reading more about the espresso making process, I also learned of some old-fashioned methods for making what is close to the modern-day espresso.  It's not quite espresso, but it's the result of an inventor's attempt to reproduce espresso on the stove-top.  Specifically, I am referring to the moka pot.   It was invented in Italy in 1933 and was a huge success.   Supposedly, today in Italy almost every household has a moka pot.   And, to make it more enticing, a moka pot only costs about $30. Definitely worth a try at that price.

The above picture is the 3 cup moka pot - this one cost $20. It's quite small - actually smaller than the wooden grinder. It's made by Bialetti - they've got a cute logo:

Here's a cut-away view of what the moka pot looks like inside.

You put water in the bottom chamber and finely ground coffee goes in a metal filter (2) in the middle. You then heat the pot. The bottom tank will become pressurized as the water heats up, forcing steam and hot water though the coffee contained in the filter in the middle (4). The end result is a strong espresso-like brew that collects in the top chamber (6).  There's a safety valve (5) on the side of the pot to prevent any catastrophes with excessive pressure.

In addition to the grinder and moka pot, I also needed a way to make frothy espresso drinks like lattes. Usually, it's done with some stream contraption built into the espresso machine. Without an espresso machine, I needed an alternative, so I went with a small battery operated hand-held milk frother. It was another low-cost alternative - all stainless-steel construction yet only cost $12. It even came with a stand.

The ponies finally arrived and I received my moka pot and milk frother today! With this recent Amazon shipment I have now assembled my collection of old school coffee brewing tools. Hopefully I'll now be able to create some tasty espresso beverages. I'll post my results once I get a chance to try them out.

Update: I revised the bit about the moka pot.  Originally I said it predated the espresso machine, which was incorrect.  It was invented in reaction to the popularity of espresso from coffee bars in Italy in the early 20th century.