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.
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.
Just before Christmas 2016, my home espresso experience was significantly improved by the arrival of a Barista Express espresso machine, a kind (unsolicited) gift from Sage. I already had a Rancilio Silvia, which I’d bought four years earlier, but I’d largely fallen out of love with home espresso due to problems in pulling consistent shots (with hindsight, this was as much to do with a replacement grinder which wasn’t able to grind finely enough).
In contrast, the Barista Express has a built-in grinder. It’s also remarkably easy to use. Within a couple of days, I was pulling consistently good shots and, it was fair to say, I was converted. I carried on using the Barista Express for a couple of months, then I wrote up my experiences in what has gone on to become the single most popular post on the Coffee Spot!
For the next few years, I travelled a lot for work, so was only intermittently using the Sage. However, for the last year, I’ve been making an espresso pretty much every day and, as a result, I’ve refined my recipe and technique. In light of this, I decided to was time to revisit the Sage Barista Express…
Welcome to another instalment of my Coffee at Home series which has, to date, focused mostly on brewing methods, with simples guides to the cafetiere, Clever Dripper and AeroPress. However, I’ve also written about grinding coffee at home, while today I want to turn my attention to another important piece of equipment: scales.
Let’s start by answering a simple question: do you need scales in order to make good coffee? Emphatically, no, you don’t. As I’ve shown in my first three guides, you can make good coffee without scales. However, that doesn’t mean that scales should be overlooked, particularly as you get drawn further into the world of speciality coffee (warning: in case you haven’t guessed, that’s what this series is all about, drawing you slowly down the rabbit hole of speciality coffee, one article at a time, until it’s too late and you can’t back out).
Back to scales. Scales can be very useful: for example, I use them whenever I make coffee. In particular, as you approach the more specialised end of coffee making, such as pour-over and espresso, I’d argue that scales start to become essential. So, with that in mind, what should you be looking for?
A couple of years ago, I wrote about my travelling coffee kit. Back then, I was regularly packing my AeroPress and Travel Press, my Aergrind hand grinder, a set of scales, a metal jug, the occasional kettle and, finally, a decent reusable cup. Fast forward a couple of years, and that’s still the core of my travelling coffee kit, except that recently I’ve added a couple of items to it.
You might think that I already have enough coffee kit and, honestly, I might feel inclined to agree. However, when I first wrote that piece, while travelling a bit for work, much of my travel was for pleasure, often visiting places with great coffee shops, so my travelling coffee kit wasn’t as important.
Since then, as a result of acquiring a gooseneck kettle, I’ve become enamoured with pour-over, something my current kit doesn’t support. I’m also spending far more of my time travelling for work, and I’ve found that I’m missing my pour-over. Therefore, on my most recent trip to China, I decided to do something about it. However, travelling with a V60 and a large pouring kettle (on top of everything else) is impractical, so I needed an alternative.
In October 2016, I was in Hong Kong at the start of my around the world trip. As a result of an intriguing e-mail I’d received from John, of Decent Espresso, I found myself in a multi-floored factory building in an out-of-the-way part of the New Territories. It was there that I first laid eyes on the Decent Espresso machine, a high-end home espresso machine that John and his team had under development.
What I saw was just a prototype, still on the lab bench, but I could see its potential, particularly as John explained his design philosophy. The goal was certainly ambitious: to produce performance equivalent to that of a professional espresso machine, but at a price which would be in the reach of the home enthusiast.
Perhaps most exciting of all was the use of a dedicated Android tablet, running bespoke software from Decent Espresso, to control the machine. Using the tablet, you would be able to control every aspect of the process, from pressure to water temperature, from flow-rates to shot times.
However, that was a prototype, and there was plenty of work still to be done. Would the final product live up to the promise?
For a long time, my go-to hand-grinder has been made by Knock, which produces a range of top-quality hand-grinders. I actually have two Knock grinders, Woody, the world’s first wooden feldgrind and Red, which is a feldfarb, the metal version of the feldgrind. I wrote a comprehensive article about Woody two years ago and since then both Woody and Red have received extensive use.
What sets Knock’s grinders apart from the cheaper hand-grinders on the market is the use of a high-quality steel burr set. This gives far superior grind consistency (not to mention being easier to use) when compared to the ceramic burrs used in entry-level grinders. The Knock grinders also have the easiest adjustment mechanism I’ve seen on any hand-grinder.
Earlier this year, Knock created something of a stir by launching a Kickstarter campaign for a new grinder, the Aergrind, which was fully subscribed in less than a day. I got my first look at a prototype at this year’s Glasgow Coffee Festival, and I have to say I was impressed. Then, towards the end of last month, there was a knock at the door and there was the postman with a package for me. A cylindrical package…
A little while ago, a reader, Linda, got in touch to ask me how I managed when travelling to places where there was no good coffee. This made me realise what a very good question that was. While I’ve written on several occasions about my penchant for making my own coffee on long-haul flights and overnight trains, as well as hinting on other occasions about making my own coffee in hotels, I realise that I’ve never really addressed the issue in a comprehensive matter.
Over the five years I’ve been writing the Coffee Spot, I’ve gone from drinking whatever I’m given to being quite obsessive above bringing my own coffee and coffee-making equipment. I’m not quite sure when this started, but it’s become increasingly important with the amount of travelling I’m doing. As an example, tomorrow I’m off to Manchester for a week for work, then the weekend after that, I’ll be in Leeds, before flying to Chicago for three weeks (work + play). I can’t imagine being away for all that time without decent coffee, so I’ve assembled a basic travelling kit which, give or take a few items, comes with me wherever I go.
Soon after starting the Coffee Spot, my faithful Gaggia espresso machine gave up the ghost and I was on the market for the replacement. The Rancilio Silvia, by overwhelming consensus, was by far the best single-boiler home espresso machine for under £400, so four years ago, I became a proud Silvia owner.
Fast-forward a year and Sage launched its dual boiler home espresso machine, instantly becoming a market-leader. However, it was well beyond my price-range (£1,200) and, well, I had my Silvia. A year later, Sage extended the range, introducing two single-boiler machines, the entry-level Duo-Temp Pro (£380), and the Barista Express (£600), with a built-in grinder.
Again, I was impressed. I only managed to play with them at various coffee festivals, but even I managed to pull decent shots on them. I also heard nothing but good things from friends who owned them, so I began recommending Sage if people asked about home espresso machines. Despite this, I didn’t actually own one, largely because Silvia still had plenty of life left in her and represented a significant investment. Then, shortly before Christmas, Sage asked if I’d like a Barista Express. Well, I wasn’t going to say no, was I?
Since I started the Coffee Spot almost four years ago, I’ve changed both the way I make my coffee at home and the way I drink it. From primarily using a cafetiere and putting with milk in my coffee, I now always drink it black. Along the way, I’ve picked up a variety of coffee-making methods, including my trusty Aeropress, several different types of pour-over filter cone and I’ve even got a travel-friendly equivalent to my cafetiere in the shape of the Espro Travel Press.
With these new methods have come new techniques and, inevitably, new tools. For example, I now use scales, not just to weigh my beans, but also to measure the amount of water I use when making filter coffee. However, until recently, the one item I lacked was a gooseneck pouring kettle. Initially, poured from a jug, before progressing to an old coffee pot with a long spout that I picked up from Oxfam.
At that point, I rather fancied the gooseneck kettle to be an unnecessary luxury, a stylish accessory that added looks, but not substance. Then I actually used on and suddenly, everything was turned on its head…