Improving the Coffee Gator Espresso Machine, Part II

Pulling a shot on Amanda's Coffee Gator espresso machine using her Hario V60 scales (to weigh and time the shot) and with a Tupperwear lid so that I can position the Cafe Grumpy cup right under the portafilter.Last month I wrote about Amanda’s new Coffee Gator espresso machine, which she’d bought for under $150. Although it far exceeded my expectations and consistently makes good espresso, I found almost everything else about the Coffee Gator to be intensely annoying, particularly after spending the last five years using my Sage Barista Express. As a result, as soon as I began using the Coffee Gator, I started to think of ways that I could improve the experience, which in turn has led to this series of posts.

In Part I, I wrote about a couple of cheap accessories (a dosing funnel and a proper tamper), which improve the workflow during preparation. Today’s post is focussed on improving the experience of pulling shots and is all about how you can weigh shots with the Coffee Gator. Depending on what equipment you already have, this can be a no-cost option. That said, even if you don’t have any scales, these days, high-quality coffee scales are easily affordable, and I strongly recommend that you get some.

The third and final post in the series will look at the pros and cons of upgrading the Coffee Gator’s pressurised basket, which you might want to consider.

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Improving the Coffee Gator Espresso Machine, Part I

The original Coffee Gator portaflter and pressurised basket, along with two accessories that Amanda bought to improve the Coffee Gator experience: a proper tamper and a dosing funnel.Last week I wrote about Amanda’s new Coffee Gator espresso machine, which she’d bought for under $150. I was fully expecting to be disappointed, but to my surprise, it made consistently good espresso, far surpassing my expectations. However, after years of being spoilt when it comes to home espresso, including spending the last five years using a Sage Barista Express, I found almost everything about the Coffee Gator, other than the quality of the espresso, to be intensely annoying.

As a machine to prep, use and clean up afterwards, it is incredibly frustrating. This is largely an inevitable consequence of making a machine that can sell for under $150, but as soon as I began using it, I started to think of ways I could improve the experience, which is the subject of this series of posts. I present some potential improvements, including simple accessories and some workarounds to allow you to weigh and time  shots in real time (depending on your scales).

This post, Part I, considers two simple and cheap accessories which can improve the workflow during preparation. I also talk about an alternative to the Coffee Gator’s pressurised basket, which I’ll cover in detail in Part III.

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Coffee Gator Espresso Machine

A line drawing of the Coffee Gator Espresso Machine, taken from the front of the instruction manual.I’m the first to admit that I’ve been spoilt in recent years when it comes to home espresso, starting with my Rancilio Silvia espresso machine which I bought in 2013, along with a Rancilio Rocky grinder. Things got even better when, just over five years ago, I received the gift of a Sage Barista Express, complete with built-in grinder, which I’ve been using ever since. On both occasions, they resulted in a large step up in the quality of my home espresso, reinforcing my prejudice against cheap espresso machines, which I’d previously dabbled with.

So, when Amanda told me in March that she’d bought a $150 (£100) espresso machine from Coffee Gator, my heart sank. I felt that cheap espresso machines were a false economy: anything below a certain price-point (roughly the cost of a Sage Barista Express) was unlikely to make an acceptable espresso. Arriving to visit a month later, I fully expected to be disappointed, approaching the new espresso machine with a sense of trepidation. And let me tell you, I hated it. And I still do. Using it to make espresso is not a particularly enjoyable experience. But here’s the thing. It actually makes pretty decent espresso…

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Making Coffee at Home: Vacuum Canisters Revisited

My new Soulhand vacuum canister, complete with coffee beans, looking very pretty in the sun. Please don't store it in direct sunlight though!Welcome to the latest instalment in my Making Coffee at Home series, which takes another look at storing coffee beans in vacuum canisters. At the start of the year, I received the gift of a vacuum canister from Soulhand (a company which also gifted me a gooseneck kettle the year before). Vacuum canisters, as the name suggests, work by removing (almost) all the air from the canister, which, in theory, keeps coffee fresh for longer than storing it in an airtight container.

My initial post about the Soulhand vacuum canister was written not long after I received it. I covered the principles behind vacuum canisters and the Soulhand vacuum canister itself, including what it was like to use. I also did some simple comparisons between beans that were stored in the canister and those kept in an airtight container (my usual practice for storing beans). Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive, largely because over the short timescales involved (a week), I wouldn’t have expected the coffee to go stale. However, at the end of the post, I explained that I’d set up an experiment to see what difference storing beans in a vacuum canister makes over a longer period of time…

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Making Coffee at Home: Soulhand Vacuum Canister

My new Soulhand vacuum canister, complete with coffee beans, looking very pretty in the sun. Please don't store it in direct sunlight though!Welcome to the latest instalment in my Making Coffee at Home series, which is all about storing coffee beans at home. Other than a post about keeping coffee beans in the freezer, it’s not something that I’ve written much about. Coffee’s twin enemies, when it comes to freshness, are air and light, so the standard advice, once you have opened a bag of coffee, is to store the beans in an airtight container away from directly sunlight.

Typically, I’ll put around 80 grams of beans into an airtight container, storing the rest in the original bag (which, if it’s not resealable, I’ll pop into a larger container) in the cupboard. This means I’m not exposing the bulk of the coffee to fresh air every time I open the bag/container.

However, there is an alternative, which prompted me to the write this post. A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Soulhand offered me a vacuum canister. It’s something I’ve been thinking about getting for a while, so naturally, I jumped at the chance. Vacuum canisters, as the name suggests, work by removing (almost) all the air from the canister, which, in theory keeps the coffee fresh for longer.

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Making Coffee at Home: Cloth Filters

Using my two-cup CoffeeSock cloth filter to make a pour-over in a white ceramic pour-over filter.When I first made coffee at home, over 25 years ago, I used a cheap filter machine, but I didn’t like the taste its metal filter imparted to the coffee, so I switched to the cafetiere and never looked back. Years later, when I started experimenting with home pour-over and other methods such as the Clever Dripper, I naturally used paper filters (I’ve had the occasional metal filter but never got on with them).

For several years, I’ve toyed with getting cloth filters to use at home. However, inertia and a general sense that they were a bit of a faff compared to paper filters put me off (which is odd, since many of the other little rituals around making coffee don’t bother me). Then, on my last trip to see Amanda in November, we were in GoGo Refill, a low-waste store in South Portland, where I saw some cloth filters from CoffeeSock.

To cut a long story short, I bought a pair, one for a Chemex and one for a standard two-cup ridge-bottom filter (like my collapsible travel filter). After using them on and off for the last two months, I thought it was time to share my thoughts.

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Making Coffee at Home: Manual vs Electric Grinders

Amanda's Baratza Encore electric burr grinder next to my Aergrind hand burr grinder (not to scale). But which one did I prefer?One of the first pieces I wrote for my Making Coffee at Home series in early 2020 was on the importance of grinding coffee at home. Every now and then people ask me for advice on what sort of coffee grinder they should buy and while the article has some general advice (always get a burr grinder), I stumble over the question of whether to recommend a manual or electric burr grinder.

Regular readers will know that I have a soft spot for manual coffee grinders. After all, I own three of them: a pair of Feldgrinds and an Aergrind, all from Knock. I do have an electric burr grinder, but this is built into my Sage Barista Express. In theory, I could use it for grinding for filter coffee as well, but in practice, I use it exclusively for espresso, sticking to my Feldgrind for my daily cafetiere, pour-over and AeroPress.

However, when I was visiting Amanda last November, I had the chance to use her Baratza Encore for an extended period of time. This allowed me to make a direct comparison between electric (the Encore) and manual (my Aergrind) grinders as I made our morning cafetieres and daily pour-overs.

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Soulhand Gooseneck Kettle

The thermometer on my Soulhand Gooseneck kettle, showing just below the "ideal" pour-over range (marked in red).Readers with a long memory will recall that it was almost exactly five years ago that I wrote about my Bonavita gooseneck kettle, marking the point at which I became a firm gooseneck kettle enthusiast. Since then I’ve added a number of gooseneck kettles to my arsenal, including a basic electric model from Bodum, which I keep at my father’s house, and a pouring jug with a gooseneck spout, which I use exclusively for travel. And now I’ve added a fourth, a gift from Soulhand, a US company, which offered me a gooseneck kettle with a built-in thermometer (the good news is that Soulhand ships direct to the UK).

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Unlike my previous kettles, which have been electric, this is a stovetop model, which works on a hob, and which felt to me like a backwards step. On the plus side, there’s the built-in thermometer, which is one of things that I didn’t realise I needed until I used it (much like the gooseneck kettle itself). In the end, it won me over and I learnt a few useful things along the way, which was a bonus.

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My Travelling Coffee Kit: Collapsible Coffee Filter

My collapsible silicone coffee filter.My original travelling coffee kit was a pretty simple affair (by my standards, at least), consisting of my AeroPress, a ceramic hand grinder and a cheap set of scales. Over the years, I added to it, with the likes of my Travel Press, Aergrind hand grinder, a metal jug and, occasionally, an electric kettle joining the ranks. It got to the point that, four years ago, I even wrote an article about it.

The one thing my set-up lacked was the ability to do pour-over. This was rectified first by the gift of a collapsible metal filter cone, and then, on a trip to China two years ago, the purchase of a small (360ml) gooseneck jug. Suddenly, I could do pour-over on the go!  However, while I was enamoured with my jug, I had my struggles with the filter cone, so when Amanda gave me another collapsible filter cone as a present at the start of last year, I immediately pressed it into use, keen to see how it compared to my existing metal filter.

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Temperature-Sensitive Milk Steaming Jug

My temperature-sensitive milk steaming jug, sitting under the steam wand of my Sage Barista Express home espresso machine.Some of my coffee-making equipment, such as the subject of last weekend’s Saturday Supplement, the Sage Barista Express espresso machine, are quite valuable pieces of kit. Some, on the other hand, are fairly cheap, and yet have had a huge impact on my coffee-making. The humble digit scale is a good example: costing as little as £10, scales really helped improve my coffee brewing. Today’s Saturday Supplement is all about a similarly inexpensive piece of kit which has helped my milk steaming (although, alas, not my latte art): the Sage Temp Control, a temperature-sensitive milk steaming jug.

Getting the temperature of the milk just right is really important when it comes to coffee. No-one wants a lukewarm flat white, but neither should it be too hot. If the milk gets above around 65°C, it undergoes a series of irreversible chemical reactions which significantly change the way it tastes. I know that skilled baristas can judge the perfect temperature just by touch, but mere mortals such as myself, who make a once-a-week milky espresso drink (I hesitate to call what I make a flat white) need a little help, which is where the temperature-sensitive milk steaming jug comes in.

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